FONTANA, California (AP) — Australian driver Will Power won his first IndyCar Series championship Saturday, finishing ninth in the final race and claiming the season title after a career filled with agonizing misses.
Tony Kanaan won the 500-mile (800-kilometer), double-points race at Fontana for his first victory of the season, but Power drove an intelligent race with just enough aggression to preserve his healthy points lead.
After briefly taking the lead late, Power comfortably held off second-place teammate Helio Castroneves and wrapped up Team Penske's first IndyCar title since 2006.
"That's 15 years of hard work," Power said. "Started taking it seriously in 2000, and that's 15 years of hard work. ... It's just surreal, man. I can't believe it."
Starting from the back after a poor qualifying run, Power patiently picked his way through the field to the front. After a restart late in the race, the Australian roared into the lead with authority, showing he wasn't about to back into his first title.
With much more relief than elation, Power celebrated overcoming his still-fresh memories of heartbreak in recent seasons. He led the IndyCar points standings heading into the final race in 2010 and 2012, and he led with two races left in 2011 — but he failed to claim the title each time.
"That was one of the hardest races ever," Power said. "Oh my God, I was crying. It just went on and on. I slowly made up position, and it was great. ... I'm was so mentally exhausted right now. My hands are numb from holding onto the wheel so tight."
Power's mother and wife watched from the pit area, sometimes turning their heads away in nervousness as the laps wound down and the specter of Power's past loomed.
They didn't need to worry: The pride of Toowoomba, Australia, finally is a champion.
Roger Penske's team completed a dynamic season by claiming three of the top four spots in the overall standings, with fourth place wrapped up by Juan Pablo Montoya, who led the most laps at Fontana.
Power and Penske jointly held up an Australian flag on the victory podium before Power raised the Astor Cup.
"Tonight shows you the strength of the team and what we did all year," Penske said. "What a night. Couldn't ask for anything more."
Castroneves was essentially finished after a drive-through penalty for a pit entry violation with 31 laps to go, sliding out of the groove onto the track on his way into the pits. The penalty paved a championship finish for Power, who has been dinged numerous times this season by pit road penalties.
For the sixth time in his career, Castroneves missed the title despite entering the final two IndyCar races in the top two in the points standings.
"It stings a little bit, but that's what motivates me," Castroneves said. "It's good to be upset when you finish second in a championship. It gives me another reason to come back stronger next year and fix what we can fix to win a championship."
Power beat Castroneves by 62 points for the title. Scott Dixon, the 2013 series champion, ended up third in the standings after a strong finish to the season.
Power struggled in qualifying on Friday night, finishing next-to-last in the 22-driver field. Rookie Mikhail Aleshin's frightening crash late in a practice session reduced the field, but it didn't change Power's strategy.
Power intentionally dropped back to last on the opening lap, avoiding any chance of early trouble before attempting to work his way up the field. He moved ahead steadily and cautiously during the first 100 laps, cracking the top 10 with little drama while other teams struggled with downforce and speeding penalties.
Their Penske teammate, Juan Pablo Montoya, led the most laps at Fontana.
Kanaan earned his first victory of the season for his new Target Chip Ganassi Racing team, and the 17th of his career. The Brazilian is the 11th driver to win a race this season, tying the North American open-wheel record set in CART in 2000 and 2001.