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

Nearly 25 drivers already set for 2018 Indy 500… in mid-November

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Friday’s announcement that Danica Patrick would end her full-time driving career with a run in the 102nd Indianapolis 500, after also running the Daytona 500 in January, is another shot in the arm for the 2018 marquee event of North American open-wheel racing.

Surprisingly, it keeps the grid moving forward too to where nearly 75 percent of the 33 cars are already set… in mid-November, 2017.

Early confirmations of programs for the next year’s Indianapolis 500 aren’t new, but they’re seemingly coming earlier than normal this year, with a number of expected programs getting announced in the fall of 2017.

Coupled with the fact most of the IndyCar full-season grid for 2018 is set, it’s interesting to take a look at what’s already set for next year.

CONFIRMED FULL-SEASON (19)

The only things to add here are Dale Coyne Racing’s second driver in the No. 19 Honda, the road and street course driver for Ed Carpenter Racing in its No. 20 Chevrolet who may or may not be able to get an Indianapolis 500 extra seat in a third car, and the expected confirmation of Carlin’s graduation into IndyCar after three seasons in Indy Lights.

  • Team Penske (3, Chevrolet): Josef Newgarden, Simon Pagenaud, Will Power
  • Chip Ganassi Racing (2, Honda): Scott Dixon, Ed Jones
  • Andretti Autosport (4, Honda): Ryan Hunter-Reay, Alexander Rossi, Marco Andretti, Zach Veach
  • Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing (2, Honda): Graham Rahal, Takuma Sato
  • Schmidt Peterson Motorsports (2, Honda): James Hinchcliffe, Robert Wickens
  • Ed Carpenter Racing (2, Chevrolet): Spencer Pigot, Ed Carpenter (ovals)
  • A.J. Foyt Enterprises (2, Chevrolet): Tony Kanaan, Matheus Leist
  • Dale Coyne Racing (1, Honda): Sebastien Bourdais
  • Harding Racing (1, Chevrolet): Gabby Chaves

CONFIRMED PARTIAL SEASON/INDY ONLY (4)

  • Team Penske (1, Chevrolet): Helio Castroneves
  • Andretti Autosport (1, Honda): Stefan Wilson
  • Juncos Racing (1, TBD): Kyle Kaiser
  • Team TBD (1, TBD): Danica Patrick

Here’s where it gets interesting. Castroneves is Team Penske’s confirmed fourth, and Juan Pablo Montoya could be a hypothetical fifth if the stars align – but it’s not in the immediate plans at this moment.

Patrick also makes her somewhat surprising Indianapolis comeback and with Penske, Andretti Autosport and Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing not fielding her, the stars are aligned for her to drive with Chip Ganassi Racing in what would be a third car. Neither Patrick nor Ganassi said it’s happening today, but Ganassi acknowledged discussions, via NASCAR Talk.

Wilson finally gets his Indianapolis 500 shot with Andretti a year later as its fifth car. The team ran six last year, with the two Indy-only entries coming in separate partnership efforts between McLaren and Honda (Fernando Alonso) and Michael Shank Racing (Jack Harvey).

Jack Harvey is a very intriguing story for how he’ll be racing next year. NBC Sports understands a working relationship is being hatched between Shank and Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, and with Harvey bringing a program on behalf of AutoNation/SiriusXM to grow his role into a third-to-half season of racing, this could slot in nicely as SPM’s third car. While not “officially” confirmed, it would not be a surprise to see news revealed from the concerned parties in December.

How could Harvey become SPM three when SPM three was already announced, you ask? With the Calmels Sport with SPM program reportedly on thin ice after negative press, the unlikely union of the French team owner Didier Calmels, one-time open-wheel driver turned-sports car veteran Tristan Gommendy and SPM appears set to join the “announced and dropped before ever turning a wheel” club.

Kaiser’s four-race program with Juncos Racing was announced last month and the Indy Lights champion will likely have Chevrolet power, given the team’s existing relationship from 2017.

WHAT’S STILL TO COME

Playing it out a bit with the usual, “how many engines can each manufacturer provide” story, we know Honda ran 18 cars this year and was stretched to capacity, leaving Chevrolet with the remaining 15.

Work the math from here. Provided Carlin officially announces its entry (it still hasn’t to this point, but is known to have hired IndyCar personnel) and with Honda already stretched between its 12 previously announced full-season cars (4 Andretti, 2 Ganassi, 2 RLL, 2 SPM, 2 Coyne), with a 13th engine available at some races, Carlin would have to be at Chevrolet.

For Indianapolis, Honda already begins to work its car count further beyond those 13 (if SPM 3 gets added for more races) with Ganassi 3 (a TBD, but would be Patrick if confirmed here) and Andretti 5 (Wilson) to get to 15, which leaves just three leases at play to get to 18… again, this is in mid-November.

Provided Pippa Mann can work towards her annual appearance with Coyne, factor in a possible sixth Andretti car and an 18th Honda lease – perhaps a third car at RLL or fourth at Ganassi, SPM or Coyne – and suddenly the Honda inn would already be booked up.

Chevrolet would have the rest, and you can figure out the math from there.

It may only be mid-November, but the race to secure a berth on the grid for next May is already well underway.