Whoever won the 2014 Verizon IndyCar Series title, it was clear from early on in the season finale at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, California that one way or the other the new champion would be wearing Penske Racing colours. The only question was whether the wearer would be Will Power or Helio Castroneves.
Power had a significant points advantage coming into the weekend, but Castroneves gave it his all by winning pole position while a poor qualifying left Power starting the race from the back row. At one point he was leading the race while Power had climbed up to seventh place, meaning that the Australian had just one point over Castroneves in the title battle.
But then it all went wrong for Castroneves, who was handed a drive-thru penalty for failing to stay below the pit lane blend line on his final pit stop. Once he went a lap down, he knew it was all over.
"I didn't go fast on the speed on the pits, I actually went over the line on the apron in between turn 3 and 4 - so that's a penalty," he confirmed. "I was getting a lot of understeer, and the last pit stop I thought the only chance for me to get it is to do another mega in and out.
"I tried to control it," he added. "Unfortunately, when you touch the wheel, the line, the car pulls away and I was two wheels over actually, so that's what put us one lap down. And after that it was just bring it home.
"The only chance for me [was] to be in the lead," he said. "That's what we were doing, we were doing great pit stops this last race, and it's a shame I made a mistake.
"Stings a little bit, but that's what motivates me. Because it's good. It's good to be upset when you finish second in a championship, which gives me another reason to come back stronger next year and fix it, what we can fix to win a championship."
The three-time Indianapolis 500 winner has himself never won the series title, but Castroneves was nonetheless delighted that the championship had been kept in the Penske family and was quick to congratulate his team mate on his success.
"This time at least we have two chances to win a championship, and finally we got it," he said. "Will did hell of a job. He's the champion. Congratulations!"
And Castroneves was certainly hoping that the winning formula in terms of driver line-up could be kept in place for next season: "I do believe all three drivers work extremely well together," he said.
Other than Castroneves, the only driver still in the running for the title when the green flag came out for the start of the season finale was Schmidt Peterson Motorsport's Simon Pagenaud, but the Frenchman had a terrible race and dropped out of any realistic contention after just 30 of the 250 laps with handling issues that forced him to make an early pit stop that put him off the lead lap.
"It was a long day," Pagenaud sighed. "I'm very disappointed because my hopes were really high and I was always believing it until I crossed the chequered flag ... Of course I'm disappointed. I wanted to at least give it a shot or try but tonight wasn't the night.
"But when you reflect on the year, we fought against Penske, which is a fantastic team," he said, looking on the brighter side. "We've been strong. We've been strong every race. We've won races. I think we've done a fantastic job in the last three years and I'm really proud of the guys at Schmidt Peterson Motorsports. It's been incredible."
Scott Dixon and Ryan Hunter-Reay had been in with an outside chance of the title until the moment Power clinched points for participating in Friday afternoon's practice session which put the Australian beyond reach, after which both men were just in it for the race win. In Dixon's case it proved a successful night, coming home in second place behind his Ganassi team mate Tony Kanaan to pick up third place in the championship standings behind Power and Castroneves.
"After such a bad year I guess we ended up not too bad, but as [team owner] Chip [Ganassi] said in the meeting before the race 'Let's end on a high so we can carry that momentum through the winter'," reported Dixon. "There's lots of happy Target teams faces tonight."
Finishing off the season with three wins out of the last four races only highlighted how poorly the early part of the year had gone for Chip Ganassi Racing, Dixon admitted.
"It's disappointing in some ways because we started the season so slow," he said. "Not slow, but we didn't really collect the points we needed and had a few issues so it's always nice to end the season on a high."
As for Hunter-Reay, he was battling eventual race winner Kanaan for second place on lap 175 when he suddenly spun out onto the in-field grass to trigger the only caution of the two-and-a-half hour night race. It meant he went off the lead lap and eventually crossed the line in 16th place, not exactly the way he had wanted to finish off the season.
"I was pushing really hard on old tyres under Tony Kanaan for second and the car just came around on me - just snapped completely and we went a lap down," he said afterwards. "I thought I had some suspension issues on the rear, which ended up just being flat-spotted tyres from the spin. We never got our lap back, so that's where we wound up.
"It's unfortunate because the DHL car was good tonight," he lamented. "Another one got away. Was hoping to end the season on a higher note, but nonetheless I have to thank all the fans for the support this season as well as everyone at DHL and Honda. We'll come back stronger than ever in 2015."
Kanaan was unable to offer much insight into what had caused Hunter-Reay to spin out: "I actually don't know what happened," he said. "I was actually holding my line, but it was a racing battle. We're both here to win the race.
"I feel bad for him," Kanaan added. "I really don't know what happened, to be honest. I think he spun behind me. He was trying to go to the bottom which was extremely slippery. I wasn't trying to run there because of that, so I think that's what caught him by surprise."