FONTANA, CA— With all of the focus on the IZOD IndyCar Series championship between Team Penske's Will Power and Andretti Autosport's Ryan Hunter-Reay going into Saturday night's MAVTV 500 at Auto Club Speedway, it provided an opportunity for another driver to deflect the storyline.
That is what Marco Andretti did on Friday by winning his first pole of the season and second of his career. He drove his Dallara/Chevrolet to a two-lap average of 216.069 miles per hour just a tick faster than Team Penske's Ryan Briscoe in a Dallara/Chevrolet at 216.058 mph.
Power has a 17-point lead over Hunter-Reay leading into the final race of the season and qualified third with a two-lap average of 215.940 mph. But he is one of 14 drivers that will move back in the field after making an unapproved engine change and will start the race 13th. Hunter-Reay had a miserable qualification effort with a two-lap average of 212.773 mph and was also one of the 14 drivers penalized. He will actually start 22nd in the 26-car field after many of the drivers in front of him were also in the group of penalized drivers.
But over the course of a 500-mile race, this is the one track where starting position probably won't matter.
"It's not a great qualifying run for us but it's a 500-mile race so I'm really not that bummed about it," Hunter-Reay said. "We just hadn't dialed our qualifying trim in with the DHL/Sun Drop car and that caught us out a bit. We missed the balance and (the car) took off on me a bit there at the exit. It was definitely hard to put a good two laps together. We've been focusing on the race though - that's the big thing, we haven't done any qualifying runs today so it's something that we just haven't really put a lot of time into. Tonight we'll go out and work on race trim and get these four Andretti cars up front."
It didn't get much better for RHR in the final practice session as he was all over the track at times and finished with the 21st fastest speed of 209.360 mph. That was actually faster than Power, who was 23rd at 208.243 mph in the final practice.
"Honestly, the only thing that it's good for is to maybe be keeping out of if something happens," Power said. "Apart from that, you can start a lap down, still come back and win the thing. You can be a lap down halfway and still come back and win.
"So it's not a big deal."
When Hunter-Reay heard that he was quick with a comeback of his own.
"I agree -- I think Will should start a lap down," Hunter-Reay said. "It doesn't matter because it's 500 miles. If you have a well-balanced race car, it's fine. You don't want to put yourself in a position to be buried in traffic, like I was saying before, have to deal with cars that might have handling issues as well.
"It's always better to be up at the front. It's usually drama-free. We'll be looking to get up there as soon as possible."
Power called his qualification laps unpredictable.
"I was the first of my team's cars, too," he said. "The wind changes, the whole track changes. I had totally different balance to what I had all weekend. Yeah, I mean, man, I got the hard rev limiter both laps down the back straight on a bump. Sometimes I'm glad when I start on pole but every time, if I start on pole, it's bad and when I start back in the pack, it's great. Hopefully that's true here.
"It's a 500-mile race. It would have been nice to get the point. We'll see tomorrow and I'll just hang in there, just stay there and hopefully have a shot."
For the most part Power's strategy is simple. If he finishes ahead of Hunter-Reay he wins the championship. There are over 30 different scenarios for Hunter-Reay to claim the title, however.
"We are focused on the things we can control," Power said. "Things are out of your control in the race. We are going to do what we can, and see how it ends up."
Rookie Josef Newgarden of Henderson, Tennessee qualified fourth at 215.919 mph in a Dallara/Honda but is another driver with a 10-spot penalty. Scott Dixon rounded out the top five at 215.391 mph in a Dallara/Honda for Target/Chip Ganassi Racing but is on his seventh engine and will get a 10-grid spot penalty.
The official starting order has yet to be released by INDYCAR so the order will be different when Andretti leads the field to the green flag at 8:45 p.m. Eastern Time.