FONTANA, Calif. -- One by one IZOD IndyCar Series drivers put separation between championship front-runner Will Power and Ryan Hunter-Reay during qualifications for the MAVTV 500 INDYCAR World Championships at Auto Club Speedway.
In a nutshell, Hunter-Reay, whose No. 28 Team DHL/Sun Drop Citrus Soda car was the second of 25 qualifiers on the scorching (141 degrees track temp) 2-mile oval, will have his work cut out for him in the 250-lap race Sept. 15 to claim the series title.
He qualified 17th with a two-lap average of 212.773 mph and also will incur a grid penalty for adding a fresh Chevrolet engine (the entrant's sixth; in violation of IZOD IndyCar Series rules) that will slide him to the 22nd starting spot.
Click it: Starting lineup | Qualification results | Carpenter paces final practice
Power, who leads by 17 points, qualified third in the No. 12 Verizon Team Penske car with an average speed of 215.940. He will, however, also receive a grid penalty for changing to a fresh Chevrolet engine (the entrant's sixth) and will start 13th.
"Not a great qualifying run for us but it's a 500-mile race so really not that bummed about it," said Hunter-Reay, who has two short-oval victories this season but recorded his lowest qualifying position on an oval in this round. "We just hadn't dialed our qualifying trim in with the DHL/Sun Drop car and that caught us out a bit. We missed the balance and (the car) took off on me a bit there at the exit. It was definitely hard to put a good two laps together.
"We've been focusing on the race though. That's the big thing."
Overshadowed by teammates James Hinchcliffe and Hunter-Reay this season, Marco Andretti put a stamp on his year with his first pole start in 76 races. His last and previously only earned pole was at the Milwaukee Mile in 2008.
"It means a lot with what we have been going through this year," said Andretti, who has one top-five finish through the first 14 races in the No. 26 Team RC Cola car. "It's just been a very trying year for me and my career. It's good for the confidence. But credit to the whole RC team and the whole Andretti Autosport team is just taking a huge step up this year."
Andretti, who followed Hunter-Reay in the qualifying order, had a two-lap average of 216.069 mph. He is not among the 14 drivers facing 10 spot grid penalties for unapproved engine changes.
Power, whose qualifying effort of 215.940 mph was a season best on an oval, will have the benefit of having teammate Ryan Briscoe (216.058 mph -- 0.0032 of a second behind Andretti over the two laps) starting on the front row. Briscoe, who also does not face a grid penalty, qualified for the front row for the fifth time this season.
"It's one of those races where you can be a half-lap down and come back to win the race," said Power, to which Hunter-Reay replied, "I agree; Will should start a half-lap back."
There are a myriad of scenarios in this championship duel -- the seventh consecutive year that the title will be decided in the season finale. For Power, the quickest path to his first series title is finish ahead of Hunter-Reay.
"It's a 500-mile race. We are focused on the things we can control," he said. "We are going to do what we can and see how it ends up. Just hang in there, just stay there and hopefully have a shot."
Rookie Josef Newgarden of Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing qualified a oval season-high fourth and Scott Dixon of Target Chip Ganassi Racing qualified fifth. Alex Tagliani qualified sixth. All three will incur grid penalties.
"Coming into this race, we talked a lot about how I don’t want a car that’s going to sit on pole," said Newgarden, who is the subject of the next episode of "INDYCAR 36" being taped this weekend. "I want a car that’s going to be comfortable, reliable and consistent for the entire race. That’s what we’re working on. We want to have a good race car that can run a ton of laps. If we have that, then we can run up front and compete up front."
Chief beneficiaries of the grid penalties are Tony Kanaan, JR Hildebrand and Ed Carpenter, who will start third, fourth and fifth, respectively. Carpenter qualified ninth in the No. 20 Fuzzy's Ultra Premium Vodka car -- a season high for the freshman IZOD IndyCar Series team he owns.
Justin Wilson, whose No. 18 Sonny's BBQ car made contact with the Turn 1 SAFER Barrier in the morning practice, did not make a qualifying attempt. He was uninjured. He returned for the final practice session.