And so once again, the battle for the IZOD IndyCar Series championship had come down to this - the last race of the season. One race and a million dollars, a large trophy and a place in the record books beckoned for either Scott Dixon or Helio Castroneves at the end of the night, but neither man could have expected it to be such a trial by ordeal that it virtually came down to who would be the last man left standing at the end of 500 miles of attrition.
As soon as the sun had dipped down low enough in the sky so as not to cause the drivers problems with glare, the 25 cars took to the track at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, California. Framed against the spectacular backdrop of Mount Jurupa, they lined up three-wide to take the green flag for the start of the season finale MAVTV 500.
Penske team mates Will Power and AJ Allmendinger led the way, but all eyes were on their team mate Castroneves starting from 12th after opting for a ten-place grid penalty in order to secure himself a fresh engine for the night's endeavours and give him the best shot of lasting to the finish in order to clinch the 2013 IZOD IndyCar Series championship. His sole remaining rival for the title, Scott Dixon, had taken a similar gambit and was starting two rows further back in 17th. Both men were gambling on the fact that it was easier to make up positions on an oval than at a street or road course, and that with a 250-lap race on a two-mile oval there was plenty of time for anything to happen.
While Power leapt away to an early lead, Allmendinger found the pace at the front too hot to handle and was quickly displaced by Sebastien Bourdais, Marco Andretti and Tony Kanaan. Castroneves flew up into the top six within the first two laps and then entered the top three ahead of Kanaan by the end of lap 6, while Dixon made more stately progress from further back and seemed content to circulate in 13th place during the initial stages. It seemed like a classic case of the hare and the tortoise - but would the outcome of the old fable hold up in a sport where speed is king?
Power's early pace waned and Bourdais took over at the front on lap 12, with Power also quickly dropping behind Castroneves, Kanaan and Hunter-Reay. Bourdais stayed out in front for the next 20 laps until finally Hunter-Reay carried enough momentum to pull off a pass for the lead, Bourdais nearly washing up into the wall in his wake which allowed Castroneves to follow through for second place, at least for the next three laps until time came for his first pit stop of the evening on lap 35.
Most of the Chevy cars were also in soon after, Marco Andretti suffering a slow stop with the crew having problems with the front left wheel change. By lap 38, all 10 Chevy-powered cars that had been out in front had cycled through pit lane, leaving a Honda (James Jakes) in command for the first time. Dixon himself lasted until lap 40 before coming in, proving once again that while the Chevrolet engine might have the raw speed, the Hondas had the edge on the fuel conservation side. Would that prove to be the deciding factor tonight?
After the pit cycle had completed, Hunter-Reay was back out in front with Castroneves running close behind and ahead of Power, Kanaan, James Hinchcliffe, Allmendinger and Bourdais, while Dixon continued to make little forward progress and was still outside the top ten as the lap count ticked past 60. Despite the ten position gap, it was still good enough to keep Dixon mathematically in the title lead for the time being.
The race had gone 70 laps without caution when it finally got a two-for-one deal next time by, Sebastian Saavedra spinning into the wall after suffering a cut rear tyre, and Pippa Mann was unable to get down in time avoid him without running into the wall herself. That sent the rest of the field onto pit road, thereby emphatically resetting the fuel conservation imbalance between Honda and Chevrolet: Hunter-Reay retained the lead ahead of Castroneves, Power, Hinchcliffe and Allmendinger, but the big development in terms of the title battle was Scott Dixon emerging from pit lane in sixth place ahead of Bourdais and Kanaan.
Racing resumed on lap 82, with Castroneves finally getting the better of Hunter-Reay for a short-lived lead before he was passed in turn by Marco Andretti, while further back the field was backed up by a sluggish Will Power. James Hinchcliffe damaged his front wing in the jumble and was forced to make an unscheduled pit stop soon after, while Scott Dixon flirted with championship disaster when the rear of the #9 made contact with the front wing of Carlo Munoz who was at the wheel of the #5 Andretti-HVM car subbing for the sick EJ Viso.