IndyCar has 500 miles to glory, through speed, dirt, tire fall off and unpredictability

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FONTANA, Calif. – Put off your evening plans and brew the coffee to stay up late for a late night, 500-mile shootout Saturday night from Auto Club Speedway for the MAVTV 500, starting at 9 p.m. ET on NBCSN.

Because if you miss the 2014 Verizon IndyCar Series season finale, you don’t get any live IndyCar racing for at least the next five, and possibly, six, months.

This season’s condensed 18-race schedule started the last weekend in March, and it will end the last weekend in August. Whether that’s a good thing depends on who you talk to in the paddock, or whether you note the year-on-year viewer increase for most TV broadcasts.

As always, the last race of the year offers a bevy of story lines that are usually hard pressed to be matched at other events throughout the year.

Need a primer on what to look for? Here’s some things to note:

THE TITLE BATTLE

For the second time in three years, IndyCar will have a first-time champion. That is a good thing, as it offers IndyCar another shot to promote a new champ after squandering the opportunity for American Ryan Hunter-Reay in 2012 due to the leadership in-fighting and eventual removal of CEO Randy Bernard that dominated the headlines.

Likely Will Power or Helio Castroneves will deliver Roger Penske his first title in eight years – if either falters, or has some bizarre sequence of events happens, Simon Pagenaud could still steal the title.

DOUBLE FOR THE JUMBLE

The championship battle is always going to be the main storyline, but the double points on offer could provide a significant shakeup in the overall top 10 standings.

From second-placed Castroneves (575) to sixth-placed Juan Pablo Montoya (519), there’s only 56 points that separate those five. So what currently goes Castroneves 575, Pagenaud 545, Ryan Hunter-Reay 534, Scott Dixon 523 and Montoya 519 could be significantly altered after Saturday night.

The rest of the top 10 could change significantly as well. The gap from seventh-placed Tony Kanaan to 11th-placed Ryan Briscoe is only 34 points.

The points breakdown this race: 1-100, 2-80, 3-70, 4-64, 5-60, with 6-10 decreasing by 4 points per position from there down to 40 for 10th, and with 11th through 22nd decreasing by 2 points per position from there down to 16 for 22nd. Four additional bonus points are on offer, one for pole, one for leading one lap and two for leading the most laps.

THE DIFFERENT WINNERS RECORD

We wrote about this leading into Milwaukee and the mark still stands – if a new winner emerges this weekend in Fontana, it will be the 11th of this season, and thus tie a record for the most number of different winners in a season.

THE RELIABILITY ISSUES

On ovals this season, the number of DNFs from Indianapolis through Milwaukee are, in order: 9, 5, 4, 7 and 2.

Last year at Fontana alone? There were 16 DNFs in the 25-car field – 6 alone within the last 100 miles.

With engine reliability compromised by the high heat of the race and the radiators getting clogged with debris, it made for a long night for a fair number of drivers. Both Chevrolet and Honda’s respective 2.2L V.6 engines have done well in battle thus far and rarely have issues, but between them, they had five failures in this race year.

THE TIRE FALL OFF

Wednesday’s test saw a fair number of cut tires, although it was later fixed by the end of the day. Still, fall off and wear should be an issue. A couple drivers I spoke to Thursday estimated the tires will be very good for the first 10 laps of a stint, decent over the next 30 and “hanging on” in the final 8-10 laps of a stint.

With the Mazda Road to Indy seasons complete, and without the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series also on the weekend schedule, this race is the first oval this year where just Firestone rubber is being laid down. So no Cooper or Goodyear rubber will be ground into the surface this weekend. The Texas and Iowa races had NASCAR on the docket, but no MRTI races.

THE DRIVERS WITH SOMETHING TO PROVE

Those drivers without a contract in hand next year – Simon Pagenaud, James Hinchcliffe and more – will no doubt want to showcase themselves to potential suitors Saturday night, and it’s their last chance to do so before the winter.

Josef Newgarden has a contract in hand but still has yet to win his first ever race; Marco Andretti, Graham Rahal, Justin Wilson, Ryan Briscoe and Charlie Kimball are three potential 11th winners of the year; and there’s more still who could use a solid weekend to end 2014 on a high note.

Hartley to make F1 debut from back of grid after penalty

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Brendon Hartley’s hopes of a points finish on his Formula 1 debut took a hit on Friday after the FIA confirmed the Toro Rosso driver will start the United States Grand Prix from the back of the grid due to an engine penalty.

Porsche factory driver and 24 Hours of Le Mans winner Hartley was drafted in by Toro Rosso as a surprise replacement for Pierre Gasly in Austin, with the Frenchman tied up with Super Formula duties at Suzuka this weekend.

Hartley took to the track in an official grand prix session for the first time on Friday in Austin, marking his first run-out in an F1 car since a test with Mercedes in 20120.

However, FIA technical delegate Jo Bauer confirmed in his pre-race report that changes had been made to the power unit on Hartley’s Toro Rosso car since the last race in Japan, triggering a grid penalty.

Toro Rosso elected to take a new internal combustion engine, MGU-H, energy store and control electronics on Hartley’s Renault power unit, totaling a 25-place grid drop that will be applied after qualifying. Confirmation of the penalty is set to follow later today.

The penalty comes as a setback for Hartley, but was necessary as Toro Rosso found itself short on engine elements to get to the end of the season.

Hartley is not the only driver to have a penalty confirmed, with Renault’s Nico Hulkenberg and McLaren’s Stoffel Vandoorne also taking new engine elements, also confirmed in Bauer’s report.

A new ICE, turbocharger and MGU-H for Hulkenberg will see him drop 20 places on the grid, while an eighth ICE of the year for Vandoorne will trigger a five-place drop.