Marco Andretti takes #MAVTV500 pole; title rivals Power and RHR start in mid-pack

Marco Andretti has two tasks in Saturday’s IZOD IndyCar Series finale: End a trying 2012 campaign with a strong finish and help teammate Ryan Hunter-Reay bring Andretti Autosport its first championship in five seasons.

The third-generation driver, who has just one top-5 finish this season, will start on pole for the MAV TV 500 at Auto Club Speedway after posting a two-lap average of 216.773 mph during Friday’s qualifying session. Afterwards, he indicated that while he’s ready to support Hunter-Reay in his title battle against Will Power on Saturday, he’s also itching for a return to Victory Lane.

“We’re definitely showing up here to win,” said Andretti. “I know my teammate’s in the championship. We’re going to help him if we’re around him on the track by not interfering, but this is going to race like a high-speed short oval. There’s not much I can do drafting-wise to actually help him.”

“I’m not going to hurt him or Will. I’m going to be out to try to win the race, end on a good note to carry some momentum into the off-season.”

As for Hunter-Reay, who sits 17 points back of leader Will Power going into Saturday’s final battle, he’ll have to start 22nd on the grid after being penalized 10 positions for an unapproved engine change. Power also swapped motors, but a better qualifying run on his end means that even with his own penalty, he’ll be a bit farther ahead in 13th starting position.

Both title contenders were part of a group of 14 drivers that incurred engine penalties. And both title contenders also collectively shrugged at their mid-pack starts, as qualifying isn’t as critical at Auto Club Speedway’s two-mile oval.

“The only thing that it’s good for is to maybe be keeping out of [trouble] if something happens,” Power said. “Apart from that, you can start a lap down, still come back and win the thing…It’s not a big deal.”

“It doesn’t matter because it’s 500 miles,” said Hunter-Reay. “If you have a well-balanced racecar, it’s fine.”

But while they know that their starting position won’t matter much, they also know that they’ll have to stay on top of a track that has been constantly changing since the cars came off the transporters.

Hot temperatures greeted the IndyCars on Friday — Hunter-Reay dubbed it “Vegas heat” — and the thermometer is expected to tag 100 degrees again when the race begins shortly before 6 pm PT on Saturday night. But as the night goes on and the track cools, more grip could be available (the series staged Friday’s final practice in night conditions).

That means the fight between Power and Hunter-Reay for IndyCar supremacy will likely come down to whoever can adapt the best to those shifting conditions.

With 14 drivers taking engine penalties, the starting grid for the MAV TV 500 definitely shifted a bit from the actual qualifying results. Here’s the official grid for Saturday’s main event, with everyone that’s been penalized in italics:

26-Marco Andretti
2-Ryan Briscoe

11-Tony Kanaan
4-J.R. Hildebrand

20-Ed Carpenter
8-Rubens Barrichello

6-Katherine Legge (Rookie)
22-Oriol Servia

10-Dario Franchitti
17-Sebastian Saavedra

5-E.J. Viso
19-James Jakes

12-Will Power
67-Josef Newgarden

9-Scott Dixon
98-Alex Tagliani

3-Helio Castroneves
38-Graham Rahal

ROW 10
27-James Hinchcliffe
77-Simon Pagenaud (Rookie)

ROW 11
15-Takuma Sato
28-Ryan Hunter-Reay

ROW 12
83-Charlie Kimball
14-Wade Cunningham (Rookie)

ROW 13
18-Justin Wilson
78-Simona de Silvestro