FONTANA, Calif. – Penske Racing was perfect Friday in the first phase toward pushing Helio Castroneves to the IndyCar championship.
Will Power, Castroneves and AJ Allmendinger swept the front row in qualifying for Saturday night’s season finale at Auto Club Speedway, where Castroneves is trying to chase down Scott Dixon for the IndyCar title.
“They did a hell of a job to be a front-row lockout, so job accomplished for those guys,” said Dixon, who takes a 25-point lead over Castroneves into the finale.
Dixon’s lead could have been cut to 24 points at the start of the race.
Power turned a lap at 220.775 mph to bump Castroneves from the pole, snatching away the bonus point his teammate would have earned for qualifying in the top position.
“It would have been nice for Helio to get the point, but Scott didn’t, so it kind of still keeps it alive,” Power said.
Castroneves, who had a 49-point lead in the standings before two disastrous races in Houston two weeks ago, has a ton of work to do to win his first title. The Brazilian likely needs to win the race, while Dixon wins his third championship simply by finishing fifth or better.
“Unfortunately, we didn’t have a crystal ball to tell my buddy here to slow down,” Castroneves said. “Those guys were behind him, so I’m glad he went for it. That’s what the car was able to do. We showed that we did our homework. It’s a game. You’ve got to play the game on the odds. In that position, it was the right thing to do.”
Dixon qualified seventh and said he never had a shot at catching the Penske drivers.
Castroneves was the class of the field in an open test last month, and everybody expected his Chevrolet to be fast at the finale. But the qualifying order had Castroneves go out fairly early, and Power knocked him from the pole, saying after he wanted to ensure that Dixon couldn’t grab the top spot when he made his late run.
“I’m surprised they thought we had that kind of speed in us,” the New Zealander said. “That’s kind of nice because it obviously helped us. I’ll have to thank Will for taking that point. Whether that comes into control tomorrow night, that’s a different subject.”
Both Castroneves and Dixon made engine changes before the weekend and will take 10-spot penalties on the starting grid. It means both will have to drive through early traffic in their championship race.
Allmendinger was brought in by team owner Roger Penske as an added aid to Castroneves’ battle, and both he and Power have said they’ll do whatever is needed to help their teammate.
“Obviously, Helio’s got a championship on the line, and if I can help that, I will,” Allmendinger said.
But Power bristled when asked if a recent manipulating scandal in NASCAR by Michael Waltrip’s team could reflect poorly on any Penske attempt to assist Castroneves.
“No, c’mon. If you just sit there and say `I’m going to race my teammate really hard for the win,’ what are we talking about?” Power said. “Everyone knows what the deal’s going to be. That’s what it’s going to be. Every single team in this pit lane in this situation would do the same thing. Not just back off over the line. Not going to let him go, but not going to race him hard.”
Castroneves, usually light and playful, turned serious on the issue.
“We’re going to race as hard as we can without taking each other out,” Castroneves said. “We’ll see what happens. If we got in that position, that’s a great problem to have. Hopefully it will be like that, then we’ll talk about it later.”
Dixon will be racing with Alex Tagliani filling in for regular teammate Dario Franchitti, who is recovering from injuries suffered in a last-lap crash at Houston two weeks ago. The four-time series champion suffered a broken ankle, two fractured vertebrae and a concussion in the accident, and was hospitalized for almost two weeks.
Castroneves did not believe Dixon would suffer from not having his usual Target Chip Ganassi Racing teammate on the track.
“Scott and Ganassi, not the first-time rodeo for them,” he said. “They know what they need to do. We know what we need to do, as well.”
IndyCar moved the start of the race back 20 minutes to address driver concerns about the glare from the sun in Turn 3.