Castroneves secures crucial MAVTV 500 pole; Power starts P21 for IndyCar finale (VIDEO)

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FONTANA, Calif. – The stage is set for an intriguing 500 miles in Saturday’s Verizon IndyCar Series season finale. Helio Castroneves qualified on pole Friday and teammate and points leader Will Power struggled to 21st on the grid for the MAVTV500 (9 p.m. ET, NBCSN and NBC Sports Live Extra).

Castroneves ran last in qualifying and following a 219.127 mph first lap and a dropoff to only 217.956 on the second, that was enough to secure the Brazilian his third Verizon P1 Award this year (he also has a fourth time starting first in Toronto Race 2, where qualifying was canceled due to weather and the grid set by owner points).

“It certainly helps, but it’s not everything,” he said. “It was pretty good but I didn’t do it just by myself.”

The pole position is the 41st of his career, breaking a tie with the legendary Rick Mears for fourth all-time.

Power, by contrast, ran 13th during the session and had a miserable first lap of 210.577 mph and was only able to improve to a 214.678 on Lap 2. That netted the second-worst average of 212.604 mph.

“Too loose,” he sighed immediately after the attempt.

With this outcome, Castroneves sits exactly 50 points behind Power. Castroneves could win the title with a win and Power finishing eighth or worse, before bonus points are factored in, or if he finishes second and Power ends 16th or worse. Castroneves can also win with third, but he’d need to win and hope Power fails to improve at all from his starting position.

Three additional bonus points are available – one for one lap led and two for the most laps led. If Castroneves maxes out the bonus points, he can still win the title with as low as a third place finish.

But either way, he needs a top-three and help heading into Saturday.

Juan Pablo Montoya, who was second out to qualify, starts in the same position after holding down the pole for the majority of the session.

“The way we had it set up for race trim wasn’t as good for qualifying, so we were a little bit off,” he said. “But we ran the same time as this morning, which was 30 degrees warmer. I don’t think it’ll be a pole. I’ve been coming to NASCAR races here for seven years. For seven years it’s been the same, it’s bad.”

In third and rounding out the front row for the three-wide start is Josef Newgarden, who was the highest qualifying Honda-powered entry for the fourth consecutive race. Newgarden was actually frustrated with his speed as he felt he missed it on the first lap, and made a massive gain in the second.

“We’re always right there but can’t get the top spot,” he said. “Today was the perfect day to do it. No one knows what line to use. Guys going high, low, middle throughout their run. If the game plan was right, you could hoodwink people.

“Our first lap could have been way quicker with a better line choice in 1 and 2. Judging off everyone’s performance, I think we could have been pole today.”

Takuma Sato, Scott Dixon and Charlie Kimball are on Row 2. Tony Kanaan, Mikhail Aleshin, Ryan Hunter-Reay and Graham Rahal round out the top 10.

Pagenaud, who remains mathematically eligible for the championship, will start 13th next to Ed Carpenter in P14.

Final practice runs from 7:15 to 7:45 p.m. PT and local time.

FONTANA, Calif. – Qualifying Friday for the MAVTV 500 Verizon IndyCar Series event on the 2-mile Auto Club Speedway, with qualifying position, car number in parentheses, driver, chassis-engine, and speed:

1. (3) Helio Castroneves, Dallara-Chevy, 218.540
2. (2) Juan Pablo Montoya, Dallara-Chevy, 217.621
3. (67) Josef Newgarden, Dallara-Honda, 217.600
4. (14) Takuma Sato, Dallara-Honda, 217.323
5. (9) Scott Dixon, Dallara-Chevy, 217.057
6. (83) Charlie Kimball, Dallara-Chevy, 217.017
7. (10) Tony Kanaan, Dallara-Chevy, 216.857
8. (7) Mikhail Aleshin, Dallara-Honda, 216.726
9. (28) Ryan Hunter-Reay, Dallara-Honda, 216.305
10. (15) Graham Rahal, Dallara-Honda, 216.299
11. (27) James Hinchcliffe, Dallara-Honda, 215.898
12. (8) Ryan Briscoe, Dallara-Chevy, 215.878
13. (77) Simon Pagenaud, Dallara-Honda, 215.752
14. (20) Ed Carpenter, Dallara-Chevy, 215.326
15. (11) Sebastien Bourdais, Dallara-Chevy, 214.713
16. (19) Justin Wilson, Dallara-Honda, 214.486
17. (98) Jack Hawksworth, Dallara-Honda, 214.173
18. (25) Marco Andretti, Dallara-Honda, 214.109
19. (34) Carlos Munoz, Dallara-Honda, 213.991
20. (17) Sebastian Saavedra, Dallara-Chevy, 213.981
21. (12) Will Power, Dallara-Chevy, 212.604
22. (18) Carlos Huertas, Dallara-Honda, 202.319

Michael Andretti looking forward to new Australian Supercars venture

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If it seems like Michael Andretti is out to conquer the world, he is – kind of.

The former IndyCar star turned prolific team owner has won three of the last four Indianapolis 500s and five overall, second only to Roger Penske’s 16 Indy 500 triumphs.

Along the way, in addition to expanding his own IndyCar and Indy Lights operation, the son of Mario Andretti and the primary shareholder of Andretti Autosport has also branched out into Global RallyCross and Formula E racing in recent years.

And now, Andretti has further expanded his brand internationally, following Penske to the world down under — as in the world of Australian V8 Supercars.

Andretti has teamed with Supercars team owner Ryan Walkinshaw, along with veteran motorsports marketer and executive director of McLaren Technology Group and United Autosports owner and chairman, Zak Brown.

Together, the three have formed Walkinshaw Andretti United, based in suburban Melbourne, Australia. The new team kicks off the new season with the Adelaide 500 from March 1-4.

“It’s just extending our brand and putting it out there,” Andretti told NBC Sports. “The Supercars are such a great series.

“It all started with Zach Brown calling me and said ‘You have to talk to Ryan Walkinshaw. He’s got something interesting to talk to you about.’

“We talked and literally in like a half-hour, we said, ‘Let’s figure out how we’re going to make this work.’ And then Zack was like, ‘Hey, what about me?’ And then Zack came in as a partner and it’s cool now that we have the Walkinshaw Andretti United team.

“I’m really excited about that program, the guys at the shop are excited about it, we’ve been doing a lot of things to try and help it because it’s such a cool series and the cars are so cool.

“I went down there to Bathurst, which was to me one of the coolest tracks in the world. I wish I could have driven it, I really do. It looks like a blast.

“It’s amazing how big that series is when you go down there. It’s one of the biggest sports in Australia. It was just a great opportunity for us to extend our portfolio.”

Admittedly, Andretti had some extra incentive to want to get involved in the Supercars world: Penske joined forces with legendary Dick Johnson Racing in September 2014.

The organization came together quickly and the rebranded DJR Team Penske went on to win the 2017 V8 Supercars championship.

“Roger was down there the last few years,” Andretti said, adding that fact as incentive to get his own organization into the series. “So it’s cool to go race head-to-head with Roger. That was also in the back of our minds.”

This is no start-up venture for Andretti. The roots of the new venture began in 1990 as the Holden Racing Team, which went on to become one of the most successful organizations in Australian V8 Supercar racing, having won the drivers’ championship six times and the Virgin Australia Supercars Championship’s top race, the Bathurst 1000 (essentially Australia’s version of the Indy 500), seven times.

Last season, Holden Racing team morphed into Triple Eight Race Engineering and was renamed Mobil 1 HSV Racing.

And now the company has been renamed once again for the 2018 campaign under the Walkinshaw Andretti United banner.

The team will be composed of two Holden ZB Commodores with drivers James Courtney and Scott Pye, as well as a Porsche 911 GT3-R in the Australian GT championship.

What’s next for Andretti’s motorsports portfolio? Right now, it’s pretty full, but you can bet running for championships from Australia (Supercars) to globally (GRC) to Indianapolis (Indy 500) to the U.S. (Verizon IndyCar Series) are at the top of this year’s list.