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Motor sports: Newgarden in control entering today's Indy car finale

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Jenna Fryer, AP

SONOMA, Calif. -- Josef Newgarden moved a step closer to his first Verizon IndyCar Series title by leading a Penske parade into the season finale.

Four of the five drivers still mathematically eligible to win the championship Sunday are from Team Penske. In qualifying, they showed they have the raw speed to grab the title.

But it's Newgarden, in his first season driving for Penske, who led the charge. He's the points leader and three times broke the track record in Saturday's qualifying session. His final run was at 1 minute, 15.5205 seconds and gave Newgarden the second pole of his career.

The bonus point he earned for the pole gives him a four-point lead over Scott Dixon. The race is worth double points.

"This is Indy car racing -- anything can happen. We checked one thing off the box this weekend and we have one big one to check off tomorrow," said Newgarden. "We've got to get through the race, we've got to have a good race car -- qualifying is one thing, having speed is one thing, but winning the race is a whole other deal."

Newgarden was ecstatic after the pole-winning run and celebrated with his team. He's trying to become only the second U.S.-born driver in 11 years to win the championship.

His upgrade to Penske equipment this season has led to four victories and put him in control of the championship.

Penske drivers Will Power, Simon Pagenaud and Helio Castroneves qualified second, third and fourth. Dixon was sixth and struggled through all three sessions.

The four-time champion started the weekend just three points behind Newgarden and considered the favorite to win the title because of his ruthless attacking style, steely demeanor and experience. But his Ganassi Honda clearly lacked the speed of the Chevrolets from Penske.

"The Penske group are fast here, and it's exactly what we expect, but the race is going to be interesting," said Dixon, who thinks he'll have to rely on strategy to win the race. "We can definitely make it work."

Owner Chip Ganassi wasn't thrilled with the sixth-place starting spot for Dixon, but didn't seem concerned about his chances. Dixon started ninth in 2015 when he won the race, tied Juan Pablo Montoya in the standings and won the championship on a tiebreaker.

Castroneves had an anxious few moments after he only made one qualifying run in the first round. Although it was good enough to advance to the second round, he sat nervously on pit road hoping another driver would not bump him out.

The idea to make only one qualifying run was strategic, so Castroneves could hang on to an additional set of tires.

The popular Brazilian is in his 20th, and possibly last, full season in Indy cars. Penske has hinted strongly at moving Castroneves to the sports car team he's launching next season. Castroneves would probably run only at the Indianapolis 500.

"The media has helped me create a real frenzy at this time," Roger Penske said.