SONOMA -- Will Power knows better than most that every point counts in a championship race.
In 2012, he lost the IndyCar Series championship to Ryan Hunter-Reay by three points. In 2010, he lost the title to Dario Franchitti by five.
On Saturday at Sonoma Raceway, Power padded his points lead to 40 by claiming the bonus point that comes with winning the pole for Sunday's Go Pro Grand Prix of Sonoma.
The Team Penske driver navigated the 12-turn, 2.38-mile track in 1 minute, 17.4126 seconds, more than a quarter of a second ahead of Josef Newgarden, who will start on the front row in wine country for the first time.
Helio Castroneves, Power's Penske teammate and No. 2 in the points standings, will have a tough assignment Sunday. After qualifying sixth, he will be hard pressed to catch Power, the only three-time winner on a Sonoma circuit where passing is difficult. The point he lost Saturday won't hurt him as much as starting from Row 3.
"Yeah, it's another point, unfortunately," Castroneves said. "But we can't worry about one point. We need to minimize the damage. Hopefully we can have a great race. The car is fast. We'll try to do everything we can, take some chances. There's no reason to be conservative."
If things go according to plan, Power won't have to do anything risky.
"There's definitely less pressure starting up front," Power said. "It's a track-position race -- it has been in the past. Unless something strange happens with strategy, we've put ourselves in the best possible position to win the race. That's definitely the goal tomorrow."
The result for Newgarden, the young American driver for Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing, was an eye-opener. Just two years ago, he qualified 22nd at Sonoma.
"This was our worst track in 2012," Newgarden said. "It honestly was. We were horrible. I think we were two seconds off (the pace) in 2012. It's so cool to see our progress. Coming from 2012 and nearly starting last, now we're to 2014 and nearly starting first."
Scott Dixon qualified third, James Hinchcliffe was fourth, and Ryan Briscoe was fifth.
With the Sonoma race on Sunday followed by the season-concluding, 500-mile, double-points finale at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana on Aug. 30, Power could be zeroing in on his first IndyCar championship. And he'll take every point he can get.
"I've missed out by a couple of points before," Power said. "If you can start from the pole and lead a lap, that's another point. It all adds up, but there are still a lot of points on the table."
But as it stands, team owner/driver Carpenter (23rd in the standings) and Conway (22nd) share the No. 20 car. Carpenter drives only on oval tracks and won at Texas Motor Speedway. Conway, who specializes in road and street courses, won at Long Beach and in Race 2 of the Toronto doubleheader. Pretty impressive results for a one-car team.
"It has been a good year, as much a we could have hoped for -- other than a 500 win," Carpenter said, referring to being crashed out of the Indianapolis 500 after winning the pole for the second consecutive year.
The idea for sharing his car with a road racer came in a conversation with his stepfather, Tony George.
"Tony and I were talking at the end of last season and kicked the idea around," Carpenter said. "My focus at this point in my career is building the race team and the long-term viability and success of the team.
"When I started thinking about it like that -- splitting the seat with someone who could raise our level of performance on the road and street courses -- Mike was my first call. And he was excited about the opportunity."
Conway, who had given up driving ovals after two horrifying wrecks, was tailor-made for the job.
"We're all happy with it," Carpenter said. "The results have been good."
There is one drawback for Carpenter being a part-time driver.
"I certainly miss being in the car more," he said, "but at the same time, we've won three races at this point of the season, and there's a good chance that if I had been driving the car, we only would have only won one."
Contact Darryl Matsuda at 408-920-5215. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/DarrylMatsuda.
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