IndyCar drivers Scott Dixon, lef, and Helio Castroneves wave to fans before… (Brian Cleary / Getty Images )
The IndyCar title fight is down to two drivers but, given the series' record this year, the season finale at Fontana should be a much more wide-open affair.
Ten drivers have won this year in the Izod IndyCar Series, including four first-time winners, ahead of Saturday night's MAVTV 500 at Auto Club Speedway.
Either Scott Dixon or Helio Castroneves will be crowned series champion after the race. Dixon, who already has two IndyCar titles, holds a 25-point lead over Castroneves, who is seeking his first championship.
But the Fontana race — which will feature the same three-wide start used at the Indianapolis 500 — offers several others an opportunity to bolster their resumes.
Ed Carpenter's victory here a year ago was only his second career IndyCar win.
Other contenders this year include Tony Kanaan, this year's Indy 500 winner; reigning series champion Ryan Hunter-Reay, Castroneves' Team Penske teammate Will Power and James Hinchcliffe, a three-time winner this year.
Then there's A.J. Allmendinger, a Californian who's driving this one race for Team Penske before heading to NASCAR full-time next year.
The Penske cars swept the top three spots in qualifying Friday, with Power winning the pole with a two-lap average of 220.775 mph at the two-mile Auto Club Speedway oval. Then came Castroneves at 219.677 mph and Allmendinger at 218.894 mph. Dixon, who needs only to finish fifth or better to clinch the title, qualified seventh.
However, the teams for Castroneves and Dixon installed fresh engines in their cars, incurring a penalty of 10 starting spots. So Castroneves was scheduled to start 12th and Dixon 17th, assuming no other cars made engine changes.
"We'll be happy to start there" because the race is 500 miles, leaving plenty of time to reach the front, Dixon said.
Hinchcliffe, who qualified 11th, also looked to be a title contender earlier in the season with his three victories. But in between the wins he suffered a rash of poor finishes and now sits ninth in the point standings.
IndyCar unveiled a 2014 schedule that condenses its season but will again conclude at Auto Club Speedway.
Next year's 18-race schedule stretches from March 30 to Aug. 30, and will end with back-to-back races in California — at Sonoma on Aug. 24 and Fontana on Labor Day weekend.
A third IndyCar race in California, the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach on the city's streets, will keep its traditional spot in the spring and be run April 13. The Indianapolis 500 is May 25.