Dixon and Castroneves ready for IndyCar title bout at MAVTV 500

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A majority of the pre-event media obligations are done and dusted, and so this Friday at Auto Club Speedway, Scott Dixon and Helio Castroneves can at long last begin the task at hand: wheeling their respective cars as they battle for the 2013 IZOD IndyCar Series championship.

You know most of the important details. Dixon’s seeking his third championship per his “rule of fives” (2003, 2008), while Castroneves continues to push for his elusive first in his 16-year IndyCar career dating to 1998.

In 2013, Dixon has four wins and nine top-five finishes; Castroneves has only a solitary win but 15 top-10 finishes in the 18 races. Unfortunately for him, his run of consistency and finishing every lap thus far this season was thwarted two weeks ago in his sponsor’s (Shell and Pennzoil) race in Houston. And that means Dixon enters the MAVTV 500 in Fontana, Calif. (Saturday, 8 p.m. ET, NBCSN and NBC Sports Live Extra) with a 25-point lead on his title rival.

They actually both enter this race in a position of strength. Dixon is the epitome of a cool, calm and collected customer, who’s been here many times previously and never seems to crack. Even when he was tested in back-to-back weeks of Sonoma and Baltimore a handful of races ago, and was fined as a result of some ill-timed or ill-aimed comments, he never lost his head when it came time to get down to business on the track. A crushing win in Houston Race 1 and a nearly as successful second-place in Race 2 was all he needed to regain the momentum.

Castroneves – from appearances already thus far in Fontana – seems to relish the underdog role. He’s said repeatedly it’s a “nothing to lose” scenario because he can just purely go for the win and see where things fall as it relates to Dixon. The only thing that must happen for the popular Brazilian to have a chance is for the Kiwi to finish outside the top five.

“The way I look at it, we have nothing to lose this weekend,” Castroneves said heading into the weekend. “We have had a great, consistent year and we need to close it out with another strong finish and whatever happens will happen. I know we want to end the season with a win in the Auto Club car at Auto Club Speedway so let’s go try and make that happen.”

Dixon’s successes this year have come in a variety of ways. He’s maximized the points on the three doubleheader weekends, with a full 263 points achieved from the six races to 180 for the next closest driver.

Additionally, he’s made the most of two races where he was otherwise unexpected to post a big result. At the season opener in St. Petersburg, he rallied from 20th place to fifth at the finish. And Pocono, a race he considers his most pivotal victory of 2013, came as a bit of a shock given where the Target Chip Ganassi Racing team had been on pace prior to it.

“St. Pete for us was a big shock because we thought we came in good on the development area and testing had gone OK. But to qualify 20th, and it was a straight-up qualifying effort, it’s not like we got blocked or had a mechanical. We were 20th,” Dixon said Thursday.

“From Saturday to Sunday we reverted to all 2012 stuff on the car, so we had a good base. It was not an easy weekend but a very humbling one. It was the pure reality of not being where we needed to be. Those races are a credit to where we are now.”

And so here we are, standing on the precipice of yet another Ganassi versus Penske title battle, with two of IndyCar’s longest-serving drivers ready to duke it out for 500 miles. It should be fascinating to watch.

Teammates James Hinchcliffe and Robert Wickens earn top-fives at Barber

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For the first time this season, Schmidt Peterson Motorsports teammates James Hinchcilffe and Robert Wickens earned top-five finishes in the same race at Barber Motorsports Park in Birmingham, Ala.

Hinchcliffe finished third in the Grand Prix of Alabama; Wickens was one spot behind in fourth.

Wickens had one previous podium at Phoenix with his second-place finish. Hinchcliffe’s best result was a fourth in the season-opener in St Petersburg, Fla., so this marked his first podium of the year.

Both drivers needed a little help from the rain.

As precipitation began to fall in the closing stages of the race, Hinchliffe asked his team on a couple of occasions if it was wet enough to pit for rain tires. He was told twice to stay out and was then called into to the pits at the optimal time.

“Solid weekend for us after coming here before – not a great test,” Hinchcliffe said. “Two cars in the top 10 qualifying; two cars, top five in the race. Pretty proud of these boys, everybody on the Arrow car.”

The rain helped Wickens’ race strategy come together.

“I was having to save a lot of fuel in that second stint,” Wickens said. “So once (Scott) Dixon starting getting close to me I was thinking ‘Oh God, I’m going to actually have to give this one up.’ And then the rain came, so the fuel mileage happened naturally. So, yeah, it saved us a bit.”

And while both were pleased with their top-five finishes, drivers are rarely satisfied unless they are standing on the top step of the podium.

Wickens’ top-five finish was hard-fought. After winning the pole at St Petersburg and starting sixth at Phoenix, he failed to advance to the Fast 6 in back-to-back races at Long Beach and Barber – qualifying 10th both times.

“I was a little gutted that we came out in a big bunch of traffic,” Wickens continued. “It made the race fun, but a little frustrating as well because of people off sequence and whatnot. We lost a lot of track position there. Both of us could have been fighting for higher steps on the podium, but we need to do a little better job in qualifying. “