Pole sitter Marco Andretti crosses the start/finish line during a practice… (F. Peirce Williams / Associated…)
The powers that be chose to hold IndyCar's season finale in Fontana at night Saturday, and Will Power illustrated why it was a prudent call.
The temperature at Auto Club Speedway hovered around 102 degrees Friday afternoon as the Australian driver, still wearing his sponsor's black driving suit after his qualifying run, met with reporters on pit road.
"The breeze gets reasonable when the sun goes down," said Power, who's vying with Ryan Hunter-Reay to win this year's Izod IndyCar Series championship. "But now, man? It's hot."
Minutes earlier, Marco Andretti had posted an average speed of 216.069 on his two-lap qualifying run to win the pole position for the MAVTV 500 at the two-mile Fontana track.
It was the second career pole, and first since 2008, for Andretti, the son of former racer Michael Andretti who now owns their Andretti Autosport team.
Marco Andretti has endured a dismal season — he's 17th in the point standings — and winning the pole "means a lot," he said. "It's just been a very trying year for me and my career."
Power's teammate Ryan Briscoe qualified second at 216.058 mph, Power was third at 215.940 and Hunter-Reay — another Andretti Autosport driver who's 17 points behind Power in the title hunt — qualified a distant 17th at 212.773 mph.
But Power and Hunter-Reay will start even deeper in the field Saturday night. They were among 14 drivers who will be docked 10 starting spots from their qualifying positions because their teams opted to make unapproved engine changes for this race.
Power and Hunter-Reay discounted the penalty's impact because the race is 500 miles and the wide Fontana track has multiple passing lanes, giving both drivers ample time and room to reach the front.
"I'm really not that bummed about it," said Hunter-Reay, who has a series-high four wins this year.
This is the first time Indy-style cars have raced at Auto Club Speedway since 2005, and the series is using a new race car this season.
This also is the third consecutive year that Power has come to the season's final race with a chance to win the championship. He lost out to Dario Franchitti in 2010 and 2011.
A driver can earn up to 50 points in a race and two bonus points for leading the most laps, so there are numerous scenarios under which Power or Hunter-Reay can win the title depending on where they finish Saturday night.
Mike Conway reaction
British driver Mike Conway drew praise from his peers for his decision to drop out of Saturday night's race.
Conway, who was seriously hurt in a crash at the Indianapolis 500 two years ago, said Thursday: "I'm not comfortable on the ovals and no longer wish to compete on them." His A.J. Foyt Racing team tapped rookie Wade Cunningham to replace him.
"You have to respect the guy," Cunningham said of Conway. "He's had a couple of really big accidents, especially at Indy."
Power said, "there's no shame in what he did, at all, considering some of the things that happened to him" and that "he probably had a car that wasn't right. I understand when the car's not right, it is tough [to drive] around this place."
Cunningham qualified 23rd with an average speed of 209.526 mph, then he hit the wall during final practice.
"We're not too great on the time sheets right now, but it's not too uncomfortable," Cunningham said before the accident. "We're just trying to make small gains for tomorrow."