Preview: MAVTV 500 in Fontana a test of survival, heat and tire management

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The three upcoming races for the Verizon IndyCar Series are all on ovals, but they couldn’t be more diverse.

Essentially, you’ve got provolone, cheddar and Swiss cheese all in a row. Are they all cheeses? Yes. Are they the same in any way, shape or fashion beyond the fact they’re cheeses? Nope.

The first in the “ovals as cheese” trifecta is this weekend’s MAVTV 500 at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif. (Saturday, 4 p.m. ET, NBCSN), which has been done no favors in terms of scheduling since it came back on the schedule in 2012.

It was in mid-September in ungodly heat, moved to a more reasonable mid-October date the following year, then moved back up to end of August last year.

Its reward for 2015? A new track president, in the form of Dave Allen to replace the departed Gillian Zucker, and another new date – it’s now the end of June in a Saturday afternoon race.

Conditions might be miserable but the drivers will all have to make do. Here’s a decent explanation of what drivers will face, as outlined by Takuma Sato, driver of the No. 14 ABC Supply Co. Honda.

“Running the race during the heat of the day will be very tough,” Sato said. “You lose tons of downforce from the high ambient temperature and you lose significant mechanical grip due to the high track temperature, as tires are given a very hard time. So there will be not enough grip and the race will be a tough one to deal with as a driver.”

Sato – and the other 22 drivers competing in the MAVTV 500 – will look to survive the heat, tire wear and the seams that make Auto Club Speedway so treacherous. While there have been disconcerting rumors put out this could be the race’s finale, MAVTV did sign a two-year sponsorship extension at last year’s race through 2016.

As for this year, it would seem fairly likely the winner will come from Team Penske or Chip Ganassi Racing. Is that a surprise? Hardly.

On the Penske side, Juan Pablo Montoya is a 500-mile master and looks to add an ACS win to his already stellar 500-mile resume, while Will Power’s arguably best ever oval race came here two years ago. Helio Castroneves will be motivated as ever to get his first win of the year, while Simon Pagenaud has what should be a much better wagon underneath him after a trying Fontana last year in his Schmidt Peterson Motorsports swansong.

It’s Ganassi that enters as defending race champions. Tony Kanaan finally earned his first win as a member of CGR last August, and Scott Dixon gave chase the rest of the night. Charlie Kimball is a sleeper and has been very solid the last two years at Fontana; Sage Karam returns to the site where he won his Indy Lights title two years ago after a one-race absence.

Of the other Chevrolet-powered teams, the KVSH Racing entry of Sebastien Bourdais and KV Racing Technology entry of Stefano Coletti both struggled at Texas, as did CFH Racing’s pair of Ed Carpenter and Josef Newgarden, somewhat surprisingly. On outright performance you’d expect both teams to find their form this weekend, and Newgarden told MotorSportsTalk earlier this week he expects CFHR to be on better terms than they were after a disastrous Texas.

Coming to the Honda teams, and it was Andretti Autosport’s pair of Carlos Munoz and Marco Andretti, Schmidt Peterson’s Ryan Briscoe and James Jakes and Bryan Herta Autosport’s Gabby Chaves who all banked top-10 finishes in Texas. Briscoe and Andretti, of that quintet, you’d figure to do well in Fontana this weekend.

Of the other Honda runners, Andretti’s Ryan Hunter-Reay needs an exorcism or something similar to erase what’s been a brutal 10-race stretch from the start of the season. Fontana has good memories for him as it’s where he clinched his 2012 title.

The others – Graham Rahal of RLL, Coyne’s Pippa Mann and Tristan Vautier and Foyt’s Sato and Jack Hawksworth – all seek trouble-free runs and better finishes than they had at Texas.

On paper it’s likely Montoya or Dixon’s to lose. Of course with it being 500 miles, nearly anything is possible.