Since his transition to Team Penske in September, Simon Pagenaud has tried to keep expectations for his performance at a reasonable level.
But Friday afternoon's qualifying session for the MAVTV 500 at Fontana was perhaps the first time he exceeded those expectations, as his two-lap average speed of 218.952 mph gave him pole position for Saturday's race.
"I'm here for the long run," said Pagenaud, who is 10th in the IndyCar Championship standings, the only Penske driver outside the top five this season. "I'm not just here for two races.… I don't know many Penske drivers that have won right away. It's just the way it is."
Pagenaud's qualifying speed at Auto Club Speedway exceeded that of last year's pole winner, Helio Castroneves, who will start second this weekend with an average two-lap speed of 218.734 mph.
Fontana "is probably the one track where I haven't won that I would like to win more than any other," Castroneves said. "This would be a great weekend for that. We are right there in the championship hunt and a win would go a long way toward making sure we are there for the last six races of the year."
Marco Andretti will start third, while Ed Carpenter rounds out the second row.
"We have really been struggling on the ovals so far this year, but I feel like Fontana is a great track to get things turned around," Carpenter said.
The MAVTV 500 is the 11th race on the IndyCar circuit, a change from prior years when it served as the season finale.
"A lot of the drivers are going to go for it," Pagenaud said. "I think it's going to be an interesting race in that sense. It changes the dynamic. Last year, there were only three drivers in the hunt. This year, there's a lot more drivers still big on winning the championship."
Another change is the time of day for the race. Previous MAVTV 500 events have been at night, but Saturday's race is in the afternoon.
"Hopefully, it won't be too hot," 2013 IndyCar champion Scott Dixon said. "I think degradation and trying to maintain pace is going to be a tough situation, especially with the track being so much hotter during the day."
Indianapolis 500 winner Juan Pablo Montoya — who's the IndyCar points leader — will start fifth after a two-lap average speed of 217.250 mph. He's still in the running for the Triple Crown, which would be awarded to a driver who wins all three 500-mile races in a season.
"The Triple Crown is not something that I really focus on, but it's something cool that the Verizon IndyCar Series brought back a few years ago and we are proud to be competing for it," Montoya said. "Only one team is able to win the Triple Crown this year and it's ours, so that is a cool feeling."
Joining Montoya in row three is Tony Kanaan, the 2014 winner of the MAVTV 500. Kanaan has enjoyed plenty of success in Fontana, grabbing a podium spot in five of his last six races at the track.
"I've had some solid finishes at Auto Club Speedway, especially last year with finally getting a win on the oval," Kanaan said. "I'm just a big fan of this track."
Graham Rahal — currently fifth in the IndyCar standings — struggled in qualifying compared to his peers in the top five, finishing 19th. That's where he ended up at the 2014 MAVTV 500, a position he's hoping to avoid this time around.
"I think this year, we've been better at putting ourselves up there in a place to succeed at the end of the race, a place to fight for podiums and victories," Rahal said. "Last year, we weren't so good at that."
The MAVTV 500 begins at 1:30 p.m. Saturday, with television coverage beginning at 1 on NBCSN.