FONTANA, Calif. -- For the eighth consecutive year, the IZOD IndyCar Series championship will be decided in the final race of the season.
The title fight between Scott Dixon and Helio Castroneves is the race within a race during Saturday night's MAVTV 500 at Auto Club Speedway. But unlike in previous years when the championship tilt contained up to five contenders, this time we've got a two-man show, and Dixon is fairly far ahead.
A season marked by consistency and consistently good breaks finally turned sour on Castroneves two weeks ago in Houston, when the Brazilian suffered gearbox maladies in both races of the doubleheader weekend. Arriving in Houston 49 points to the good, Helio stands 25 points behind going into the final race after leading the championship for the past five months.
Dixon has racked up four race wins in 2013 compared to Castroneves' one, yet he still didn't emerge atop the point standings until after the 18th race in the 19-round championship.
Still, a fifth-place finish Saturday night would be enough to clinch a third IndyCar Series title for the New Zealander to go along with crowns earned in 2003 and '08.
"It's not going to be easy at all," Dixon said. "As typical of many IndyCar Series championships, I think it's going to come down to the last-lap, last-corner scenario. We just hope that we're on the good, receiving end."
In addition to the four race wins, Dixon's season has included mechanical failures, a strained relationship with INDYCAR race control and a couple of controversial incidents that could have derailed his chase of the championship. But he has managed to overcome all of that adversity.
This weekend, he won't have his usual Target Ganassi Racing teammate and wingman. Four-time IndyCar Series champion Dario Franchitti is home in Indianapolis, recovering from injuries he suffered in a last-lap accident in Houston on Oct. 6.
Alex Tagliani will drive the No. 10 car in Franchitti's absence. Meanwhile, Team Penske will bolster Castroneves' chances by entering a third car for AJ Allmendinger, who led laps and finished fifth in his first modern-era IndyCar oval race back in May at the Indianapolis 500.
Dixon insists that the championship pressure will not make him change his approach in any way.
"I think you can overanalyze situations too much," he said. "In the race you can't be constantly thinking, 'OK, if I'm here, Helio needs to be there.' You need to keep a fresh mind, a clear mind, so that you can make good decisions at the time when it's tough.
"The way I look at it is that you can make sure that you're prepared the best that you can, and when you're done with the race, the only time you should feel happy is if you've put in your 100 percent and done everything that was possible."
The way the IndyCar points are distributed, Castroneves knows he is in a must-win situation. Assuming Dixon earns minimum points for starting the race, only a win or a second-place finish would be enough for Helio to earn an IndyCar Series championship to go along with his three wins in the Indianapolis 500.
"Whatever it takes, we have to go for it," Castroneves vowed. "If it means taking risks, we'll do what we have to do to put ourselves in the right position.
"At this point, I feel that I have nothing to lose, so there is no pressure, to be honest," he added. "You just go for it. Five hundred miles is a long race, and anything can happen. We're going to look for our best result, try to replicate what we did in Texas. Hopefully we'll be successful."
Here are some other storylines to follow at Fontana:
• As the winners of the two superspeedway races earlier this year, Tony Kanaan (Indianapolis 500) and Dixon (Pocono 400) would claim a $250,000 bonus from Fuzzy's Vodka if they win Saturday night's race. Fuzzy's offered $1 million if a driver swept the "Triple Crown" of superspeedway races and $250,000 for anyone winning two of the three.
• Last year, in the IndyCar Series' return to Auto Club Speedway after several years' absence, Ed Carpenter prevailed in a last-lap shootout to claim his first race win as an owner-driver. Always a threat on ovals, Carpenter is looking for his first win of the season.
• Honda and Chevrolet are tied with nine wins each in the battle for the IndyCar manufacturers' championship, with the tie to be broken Saturday night. Chevrolet dominated the Indianapolis 500 and showed more speed than the Honda at Pocono, but the Honda's superior fuel mileage allowed Honda to claim a 1-2-3 finish in Pennsylvania. Look for Dixon and Castroneves and several other drivers to take 10-place grid penalties so that they can change engines to the latest specification available from the two manufacturers.
• Andretti Autosport is scheduled to announce a new sponsor for the No. 27 car, currently driven by James Hinchcliffe, on Saturday afternoon. Speculation has centered on Hinchcliffe continuing in the car with sponsorship from Honda Canada, as Honda counters the loss of Chip Ganassi Racing to Chevrolet by picking up the four-car Andretti operation.
• The 2014 IndyCar Series schedule, unveiled Thursday night, will undoubtedly be a topic of conversation. The schedule is very similar to 2013, with three doubleheaders, the addition of a road race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and the loss of events in Baltimore and Brazil. The 18-race slate has been packed into a 150-day period from March 30 to Aug. 30, the earliest end to an Indy car season in decades.