CLICK: Full qualifying times from Auto Club Speedway

Helio Castroneves was the last man to take to the track in Friday afternoon qualifying at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, but he made it count with a two-lap average lap speed of 218.540mph (1:05.8918s) to claim the final pole position of 2014 at the last minute from his Penske team mate Juan Pablo Montoya.

"Going out last really helped because I was able to get my team mates' feedback and we made some changes that really helped us get the pole," Castroneves explained.

But the scorching conditions that saw the track temperatures reach 57C (134F) proved problematic for the third man in the Penske contingent, championship leader Will Power, who slumped to 21st position on the grid after complaining of a loose car earlier in the session.

That means that Power - who won the race from pole position in 2013 - will have to work his way forward from the back row of the grid on Saturday night, while Castroneves has put himself in the ideal position to attempt to win the race and give him a chance of overhauling Power's 51 point lead in the Verizon IndyCar Series championship.

Winning pole position means that Castroneves closes on Power by one point going into the final race of the season, but that's just the start of the considerable uphill task that he faces this weekend if he wants to clinch the series title foe the first time.

"It ain't over, it's just beginning," Castroneves acknowledged after claiming his third pole of the season and the 41st of his IndyCar Series career. "Our job is to be aggressive over the 500 miles and finish where we started.

"We need to keep going. We are starting up front but it is a long race and we know what we need to do to make it happen. This is the first step. Now we need to make sure we end up where we start tomorrow night."

As for Power, he left was putting a brave face on his back row starting position for the MAVTV 500.

"For starting positions we would have liked the Verizon Chevy to start from the front, but starting in both the front or very back can help keep you out of trouble," he said. "From the back you learn what your car is like in traffic and we will have 3 hours to do it.

"It's obviously all about the race; it's very long and we'll be racing in different conditions," he pointed out.

The race will get underway before the sun goes down and then continue under floodlights into the cooling conditions of the night time, meaning that drivers and teams will be chasing the set-up throughout the 250-lap marathon event at the two-mile oval.

In a qualifying session that saw considerable variation in lap times, Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing's Josef Newgarden was third fastest ahead of AJ Foyt Racing's Takuma Sato in fourth.

Scott Dixon - who topped the midweek open test at Fontana - was fifth fastest ahead of his Ganassi team mates Charlie Kimball and Tony Kanaan, while Mikhail Aleshin continued his impressive form with Schmidt Peterson Motorsport to put himself into eighth place ahead of Andretti Autosport's Ryan Hunter-Reay and Rahal Letterman Lanigan's Graham Rahal.

Aleshin fared better than his team mate Simon Pagenaud, who was 13th fastest in the session, 0.8515s lower over the two times laps than the pole winner. Pagenaud is the only driver other than the two Penske drivers mathematically still in the running for the 2014 championship, after Dixon and Hunter-Reay were ruled out the minute that Power got out on track for practice on Friday morning.

Realistically, however, the new champion who will be crowned late on Saturday night will be one of the two Penske drivers - which suites team owner Roger Penske down to the ground.

"I always tell our guys if one driver wins the team wins," Penske said. "We got here because it was a team effort."

There will now be one final 30 minute practice in the early evening at 6.15pm (2.15am BST) to get the car ready for the after-dark conditions they'll face in the race.

"We have another practice tonight to work on things, as the Verizon Chevy was too lose," said Power. "The start is to be there at the end and it's far from over. The Verizon Chevy boys are going to do everything possible to make it happen."

After that, the next opportunity the drivers get to take to the track will be for the start of the race itself on Saturday evening at 7.20pm (3.20am). In the UK, the race will be shown live on digital subscription channel ESPN.

See full qualifying times from Auto Club Speedway