IndyCar Championship Heats Up Southern California

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Greetings from sunny California!

It’s been hot as well with temps hitting 100 on the daily. The Verizon IndyCar Series however, is hitting 200+ at Auto Club Speedway! The open test on Wednesday night went relatively smoothly, with cars pack racing in groups of 3 or 4, and sometimes even grouping up to 5 in close proximity – a great preview of the kind of action we could be in for tomorrow evening in Fontana, during the MAV TV 500. Scott Dixon ran the fastest overall, in the #9 for Chip Ganassi Racing Teams. The most-recent race winner had a quick lap average of 219.462.

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Of our 3 remaining Championship contenders, Helio Castroneves (Team Penske, #3) ran the fastest, grabbing the 5th quickest lap of the pack throughout the evening. Castroneves’ Penske teammate and current points leader, Will Power ranked 9th in the #12 Chevy. Simon Pagenaud of Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, ran the #77 Honda to the 16th quickest (interestingly, this is the same place Pagenaud qualified last year). We have to recognize that although this sounds like quite a difference between the three candidates – their best speeds were separated only by .2807 of a second.

Two practice sessions & qualifying today should tell us more in regards to where we can see these three really excel. Both Power & Castroneves have held a pole position here – Power as recently as last season and Castroneves with back-to-back poles in 2003 & 2004. Power is the only winner of the three, and he gained that victory in 2013. As you have most likely read, Power needs to finish this weekend with a P6 result or better in order to clinch the 2014 Championship. That may seem simple enough to achieve, given the consistency he has shown in results this season, but if there is anything that this season has taught us, it’s this: do not get comfortable with status quo.

The other event I attended this weekend was located in Los Angeles, at premier shopping & dining center, The Grove. The three IndyCar Championship contenders were in attendance, providing interviews with media and putting on a bit of a stage show for the gathered crowd of fans. Castroneves, Pagenaud & Power threw hats out to the crowd, discussed the season, and even paired up with fans to play a trivia guessing game, make smoothies with bicycle-powered blenders and change tires on a real IndyCar car with their respective pit crew members! The fan/driver pairings earned points based on how they did during each element of the show & in the end, the winner was Helio! Is this a good omen for the Team Penske driver, who just so happens to be missing a Verizon IndyCar Series Championship from his resume?

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And what about Simon Pagenaud? This Frenchman has been on the upswing the past two seasons, earning his first win at Belle Isle, a second one in Baltimore and finishing 3rd in the points in 2013. This year he has added to that victory total, being the first to take the checkered at the inaugural Grand Prix of Indianapolis as well as Race 2 of the Shell & Pennzoil Grand Prix of Houston doubleheade; last weekend he found himself on the podium with a P3 finish at Sonoma Raceway. Pagenaud is the “long-shot” winner of the Astor Cup this weekend but don’t let those odds fool you – this is IndyCar, and absolutely anything is possible.

I am trackside at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, CA bringing you updates and live tweets from the Verizon IndyCar Series finale weekend. Please follow along on Facebook & Twitter and as always – I take requests from YOU, the fans. So if you have a picture you would like me to take or a question you would like me to ask – please send it to me via Twitter and I will do my best to fulfill it over the weekend!

Make sure to tune in to IndyCar.com for live practice feeds today! Qualifying will be aired on tape delay at 7pm EDT on NBC Sports.