CLICK: Full race results for the MAVTV 500 from Auto Club Speedway, Fontana
CLICK: Final 2014 Verizon IndyCar Series championship standings
Will Power has been runner-up in the Verizon IndyCar Series three times, coming agonisingly close to clinching the championship title in 2010, 2011 and 2012 but each time pipped to the post at the last minute. And even though he held a big lead in the points standings coming into the final round of the 2014 season, no one would have blamed him for fearing that history would repeat itself all over again on Saturday night in Fontana.
It was also the last chance for Tony Kanaan to claim a race win in his maiden season with his new team Chip Ganassi Racing, a year on from taking over the seat of the #10 from his good friend Dario Franchitti. After a season for the team that had been conspicuously poor by its own high standards, Kanaan was desperate to put his name back in the annals of race winners once more.
To cut a long story short: both men got their dream finishes to 2014, but before they did there was still a hard day's night ahead of them and the 19 other drivers out there running 250 laps under the floodlights at the steamy two-mile oval in southern California.
When the green flag came out under a rapidly darkening sky on Saturday evening at Auto Club Speedway, Juan Pablo Montoya immediately went for the lead ahead of his Penske team mate. Pole winner Helio Castroneves was nonetheless quickly back in charge again by the second lap, while Ganassi pair Scott Dixon and Tony Kanaan moved ahead of a perceptibly off-pace Josef Newgarden to be the best of the rest.
At the rear of the field, Will Power played safety first at the start and hung back to avoid running head-first into any early potential race-ending incidents, but once the initial laps had been crash-free he was soon picking up the pace, on the move and working his way up through the field.
Other than Castroneves and Power, the only other driver still nominally in the running for the 2014 championship was Schmidt Peterson Hamilton Motorsport's Simon Pagenaud, but his chances took an early terminal blow when he was forced to pit early on lap 21 because of handling issues. An issue with the right rear tyre change cost him even more time and when he exited pit lane he was two laps down. His pace didn't really improve over the rest of the evening, and as a result he was never a significant factor in the title battle that unfolded over the next two and a half hours.
After Carlos Huertas came in to retire on lap 31 because of driver illness, the next visitor to pit road was race leader Montoya for the first scheduled pit stop of the day on lap 34, and he was soon followed in by the rest of the field over succeeding laps. Once the cycle had completed, Montoya was back out in front despite being held up by Sebastian Saavedra with two seconds in hand over Dixon, while a slow stop for Castroneves had enabled James Hinchcliffe to move ahead of him into third place in the #27 Andretti Autosport car.
Hinchcliffe soon moved past Dixon for second, and on lap 57 he put an end to Montoya's reign at the front. Complaining of understeer, Montoya was once again the first of the leaders to come in for the next round of pit stops on lap 66 while Castroneves stayed out until lap 72 and Hinchcliffe stretched it a couple more laps further still. Running longer on a worn set of tyres dropped Hinch down to eighth place by the time he rejoined, with Montoya picking up the lead again ahead of Castroneves, Ed Carpenter, Dixon, Ryan Hunter-Reay, Kanaan and Newgarden.
After unplanned pit stops for vibrations for Carlos Munoz and Sebasian Saavedra, Montoya was back on pit road again on lap 100 for his third stop of the night, turning the lead over temporarily to Ed Carpenter who paced the field for four laps before his own stop - which earned the #20 a pit lane speeding penalty. Hunter-Reay, Dixon and Hinchcliffe were the last of the leaders to pit at the end of lap 107, after which Montoya was once more back at the front leading from his team mate Castroneves followed by Hunter-Reay, Kanaan, Newgarden and Dixon.
This phase of the race belonged to Hunter-Reay, and the 2012 champion moved into the lead on lap 120 following a smooth and largely uncontested pass on Montoya. In terms of this year's title battle, Castroneves was still running in a strong third place but with Power now up into ninth place at the midway point of the 250-lap event the championship remained firmly in the Australian's grasp. There had still been no cautions all evening, although a heavy brush with the wall sent Charlie Kimball diving to pit lane on lap 134 for new tyres and a checkover.
With metronomic precision Montoya was back on pit lane for a new service on lap 140 followed soon after by the rest of the leaders - Hinchcliffe earning a drive-thru penalty for speeding on pit lane in the process. Castroneves picked up the lead through this cycle ahead of Kanaan, which meant that even though Power had nudged his way up to seventh place the title battle was once again balanced on a knife-edge: no one could afford to relax at this point, and Power duly responded by moving past Munoz for sixth position to shore up his points lead.
The race reached lap 175 without caution, despite a scary moment for Castroneves when the lapped car of Newgarden ahead of him moved up and took the air off the front wing of the #3. Moments earlier Tony Kanaan and Ryan Hunter-Reay had survived a scare of their own while duelling over second and running up to the back of the lapped car of Charlie Kimball at a crucial moment. Finally the inevitable happened, Hunter-Reay pushing too hard and managing to spin through turn 4 to send the #28 into the in-field grass where the car stalled and finally triggered the first yellow of the night which allowed the leaders to head to pit road.
The efficient Chip Ganassi Racing pit crews put Kanaan and Dixon back out on the track ahead of the Penske trio of Castroneves, Power and Montoya, with Ed Carpenter into sixth ahead of Ryan Briscoe and Takuma Sato for the restart on lap 188, which saw Power go wheel-to-wheel with Castroneves to wrest third place from his title rival. No longer satisfied with safety first, Power immediately pressed home his advantage by blasting down the hitherto unrunnable inside line to pass the Ganassi pair for the lead.
Ten laps later and the shine had gone off Power's pace, allowing the Ganassi pair to get back in front and for Ed Carpenter to follow them through for third place. Not that it mattered to Power, who was still in front of Castroneves and therefore firmly in control of the championship battle heading into the final round of pit stops that were heralded by Castroneves himself coming in on lap 216. The rest came onto pit road in short order, with Kanaan and Dixon retaining their advantage over Carpenter.
Castroneves had exited pit lane ahead of Power, but it was his final hurrah of the night: minutes later he was handed a drive-thru penalty after failing to keep below the pit entry blend line, and that dropped him off the lead lap and down to 14th place to effectively end the 2014 championship battle in Power's favour. All Power had to do now was nurse the #12 to the finish line without incident and the long-sought title would finally be his - which is just as well as he was soon on to his team over the radio to warn them that the car wasn't feeling anywhere near as good as it had earlier and asking his race engineer just how far he could afford to drop back without jeopardising the title.
In truth the answer was that he could practically walk it home from here now that Castroneves was out of the running for the win. He would eventually drop back to ninth place over the closing laps, but that was still five places ahead of Castroneves which meant that finally - after so many near-misses over the years - the championship was at last his. As he stepped from the car he looked a little dazed, partly from dehydration in the humid conditions but mostly from the sheer emotional drain of the moment.
"It just went on and on and on," he said. "I can't believe it. I'm mentally exhausted now, and my hands are numb from holding onto the steering wheel so tight. I can't believe I won it!"
All that remained was to confirm the final race winner of the year - and that went to an ecstatic Tony Kanaan, finally heading to victory lane for the first time in the #10 Target Chip Ganassi Racing car, his first win since the 2013 Indianapolis 500 for KV Racing making him the 11th different winner of the season.
"Chip said, if you win the last race, you get to brag about it for seven months!" said a thrilled Kanaan, who had an impressive 3.6s lead over his team mate at the line. "Long time coming. I finally get my picture on the shop wall."
Former Fontana winner Ed Carpenter was a similar margin back in the final podium position ahead of Montoya, Hinchcliffe, Sato, Briscoe and Munoz. Behind Power, the last man left on the lead lap by the finish was Josef Newgarden.
With the fireworks and the confetti marking the celebrations, that was the end of 2014 at least as far as the IndyCar Series is concerned, with a seven month lay-off for the teams and drivers before they reconvene next March. It means that Power can truly savour his championship success and throw the biggest party of his life before having to give any thought at all to what needs to be done in 2015 for him to successfully defend the title next year.
See full race results for the MAVTV 500 from Auto Club Speedway, Fontana
See final 2014 Verizon IndyCar Series championship standings