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Third-place finish at Phoenix a good start for Will Power after missing St. Pete


driver of the XXX during the Phoenix Grand Prix at Phoenix International Raceway on April 2, 2016 in Avondale, Arizona.

Christian Petersen

After missing the Verizon IndyCar Series season opening race in St. Petersburg, Florida, due to an inner-ear infection, Will Power was poised for a big comeback at Phoenix.

And that’s exactly what the Team Penske driver got, finishing third, right behind teammate and new points leader Simon Pagenaud.

All four Penske drivers finished in the top 11 in IndyCar’s return to the Valley of the Sun since 2005, although both Juan Pablo Montoya and Helio Castroneves needed to fight back from right front tire issues.

“I’m very happy to finish the race in third,” he said during the post-race media conference Saturday night. “You know, it’s gravy. It’s my first race of the season, so I’m very happy with that.”

Power was ranked 23rd in the standings heading to Phoenix (50 points behind then-series leader Montoya) with just one point earned, by virtue of capturing the St. Pete pole before bowing out on race morning.

Now, after the second race of the season and Power’s first of 2016, he’s rocketed up the standings to 12th position with 36 points, tied with Josef Newgarden.

It’s a net gain of only three points to the leader - now Pagenaud instead of Montoya - as Power finds himself 47 points back.

Still, earning his best finish since he was runner-up to Montoya at Indianapolis last year, Power remains optimistic that he can continue to chip away and get closer to the series leaders in the remaining 14 races on the schedule.

“It’s a long season,” Power said. “Obviously for me it’s just finishing tonight, and we’ll see as the season goes along.”

Admittedly, it was not a perfect race for Power at Phoenix, but his pit crew proved extremely valuable to keep him in contention with quick pit stops and great strategy.

And while other drivers had issues with their tires, Power said his ride was not significantly impacted.

“I was very nice on my tires because I knew you couldn’t pass, so why get so close,” he said. “I was aware that the more you punish it, the more chance you’re going to have of a big vibration. It’s not the tire that’s the problem. It’s the amount of downforce we have here. It’s too much, and that’s why we couldn’t pass, and that’s why the tires -- some of the tires had vibrations.

“I didn’t honestly have a problem in the race with (tires). I’m not sure many people did. The tires were fine. The two problems (Penske teammates Montoya and Helio Castroneves had) were cut tires, so nothing you can do about that.”

Among the biggest keys at Phoenix, Power said, were not to get too caught up with worrying about missing St. Pete, but rather to just do his best at Phoenix, not worry about the championship and go from there.

“Just have fun with it, not really any pressure, and we’ll see what happens in the end,” he said of his strategy coming into Saturday’s race. “It’s a very long championship, and you’ve got a couple double-points races (at Belle Isle). I think I can crawl back.”

Power had a shot late in the race at Phoenix to potentially overtake his teammate and take second place, but the risk outweighed the reward in a sense.

“I could see Simon was struggling out of (turns) 3 and 4,” Power said. “I could definitely get around, but I was like, I’m not going to -- unless it was a sure thing.

“There was no way I was going to take a risk with my teammate. It’s just not worth it. I just wanted to finish the race.”

And that he did. Now it’s on to the next race at Long Beach on April 17, where Power hopes to continue his uphill climb one step at a time.

Follow @JerryBonkowski