With Power Down, Hunter-Reay Becomes Champ

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Sunday, September 16 2012

The party begins for Ryan Hunter-Reay after winning the 2012 IndyCar championship Saturday night. (INDYCAR/LAT USA)

By John Sturbin | Senior Writer

His Saturday dawned with a contract extension and ended with a late-night championship. It was the 500 miles of racing in-between that were a blur for Ryan Hunter-Reay, the 2012 IZOD IndyCar Series driver’s champion.

“I have no idea (how I won this championship),” Hunter-Reay said after his fourth-place finish in the MAVTV 500 INDYCAR World Championships at Auto Club Speedway. “It was a team effort right there. We were struggling all weekend; I didn’t want to let anyone really know about it. We were really in the woods. This hasn’t sunk in yet. I just drove 500 miles for my life. I can’t believe we’re INDYCAR champions. I can’t even believe this. My dream has come true. This is unbelievable.”

Driver of the No. 28 Team DHL/Sun Drop Citrus Soda Dallara/Chevrolet, Hunter-Reay began the race 17 points behind leader Will Power of Team Penske. Power – championship runnerup to Dario Franchitti of Target Chip Ganassi Racing the past two seasons – was poised to win his first IndyCar title. But the season-finale changed dramatically on Lap 55 of the 250-lapper in Fontana, Calif.

For the third consecutive year, contact in the finale altered Power’s fate. The No. 12 Verizon Team Penske Dallara/Chevy “caught a seam” in Turn 2 of the D-shaped, 2-mile oval, spun and made hard contact with the SAFER Barrier while running 12th – a few car-lengths ahead of Hunter-Reay’s car.

“I don’t know how close it was,” Hunter-Reay said of his near-miss with Power, whose car slid left-side

Will Power congratulates Ryan Hunter-Reay after Saturday night's race. (INDYCAR/LAT USA)

first into the outside wall. “He was right next to me and I saw him lose it, so I bet it was pretty close. He was joking around that he would take me out if I was next to him – and he almost did.”

Andretti Autosport team-owner Michael Andretti relayed to Hunter-Reay – who 18 hours earlier had signed a two-year contract extension through 2014 – that he had to finish sixth to claim his first series championship by one point. That was before crew members from Team Penske’s three-car juggernaut converged to repair Power’s battered Dallara DW12 chassis. The Australian completed 12 more laps to finish 24th and ahead of the retired car of E.J. Viso.

That series of events forced Hunter-Reay to finish at least fifth. The drama continued when Alex Tagliani’s engine expired with 20 laps left and then Tony Kanaan’s car made contact with the Turn 4 SAFER Barrier on Lap 241, prompting a red flag stoppage followed by a restart on Lap 244.

When the race went green, owner/driver Ed Carpenter bolted to his second IndyCar Series victory for the second consecutive year in the finale, with Franchitti finishing second. Scott Dixon of Target Chip Ganassi Racing placed third and Helio Castroneves of Team Penske was fifth.

Hunter-Reay was running third on the restart and lost two positions, but the 31-year-old Floridian regained one spot when Takuma Sato’s car crashed on the final lap. The title difference – after 15 events on a diverse set of racetracks – was three points (468-465) over Power.

“It’s depressing to lose the championship again that way,” Power said. “It’s the season, you can’t make mistakes like that. I had understeer all night, I was having to lift, half-a-lane lower than I was before and caught a seam. Man, I don’t know what to say, it’s depressing. I was surprised. I had been pushing all day

Ed Carpenter was the race-winner at Fontana. (INDYCAR/LAT USA)

and just went a little bit different than what I had, and nothing I can say. It’s just depressing. My team was pushing me to get around him, and it was just a mistake. Just a mistake.”

Power’s spirits momentarily were boosted, however, once the combined Penske crew members rolled his repaired car onto pit lane.

“There were definitely times there where it was looking hopeful,” Power said. “All credit to my guys, getting the car out and doing those 12 laps to get a couple of points. At the end of the day, Hunter-Reay is definitely a deserving champion. A real fighter. Probably as far as all-around drivers go, he’s probably the best in the series because he wins in each discipline. If I look back on the season, once again the ovals – three crashes on three of the ovals this year – that’s a massive hit in the points. Three years winning the road-course championship, quite convincingly, so it’s very obvious where I lack.”

The race was delayed 4 minutes, 56-seconds and Hunter-Reay spent the downtime composing himself for a final dash worth a $1-million bonus.

“I just wanted to get set in a rhythm because I knew when we got in a rhythm it was a little bit better,” Hunter-Reay said. “With the red flag, that really got the nerves going. Sitting in pit lane, I knew the tires would take in a heat cycle and that it would slide around a lot. Everybody raced tough, but they raced clean. I didn’t think we had it for the first half of the race and we kept getting it better and better and better. Michael did a great job on the radio and the guys did a great job in the pits. This hasn’t sunk in yet.”

The championship culminated Hunter-Reay’s ninth season in IndyCar, and third with Andretti Autosport. He is the first American driver since Team Penske’s Sam Hornish Jr. in 2006 to win the IndyCar title.

Hunter-Reay also clinched the A.J. Foyt Oval Championship Trophy. Hunter-Reay, who began the race tied with Kanaan, won two of five oval-track races. Hunter-Reay took the series crown with six podium and nine top-10 finishes, including a series-high four wins during the shortened, 15-race schedule.

“This is an incredible day,” Andretti said. “It wasn’t going so good right at the start there  – we were struggling a little bit – and then we saw Will have his unfortunate accident and we knew it was open from there. We needed to get the job done and it was a lot of hard work. Ryan did a helluva job, and the whole

Will Power climbs back into his car after a quick fix job by his Team Penske crew. The car was damaged during a crash on lap 55. (INDYCAR/LAT USA)

team did, getting the car better and better throughout the race. We had enough there at the end to get it done. I’m just so proud of everybody here with the DHL/Sun Drop team. There’s a lot more to come. This team is still getting better and better and I think we’re going to be even stronger next year.”

In addition to Hunter-Reay’s championship, Chevrolet won the series’ Manufacturers title with 11 wins in its return to IndyCar competition with a twin-turbocharged V-6 powerplant. Chevrolet previously competed in Indy-car competition as an engine manufacturer from 1986-93 and 2002-05 with V-8 engines, winning 105 races. The wins powered Chevy to six driver titles and seven Indy 500 victories.

Meanwhile, the victory was Ed Carpenter Racing’s first win in the IndyCar Series as a team. Its previous best finish was eighth at The Milwaukee Mile and Iowa Speedway.

“This feels great for a brand new team that just started in November,” said Carpenter, driver of the No. 20 Fuzzy’s Vodka/Ed Carpenter Racing Dallara/Chevrolet. “I probably should have won Indy but I kind of messed-up a little bit. We’ve been trying to win ovals all year and finally got it done tonight. A good way to end the year.”

Franchitti, who won the previous IndyCar Series race at ACS in 2005, tied Al Unser Jr. and Bobby Rahal for fifth all-time with 88 podium finishes. He also passed Rick Mears with his 112th top-five finish and tied Castroneves and Dixon for eighth with his 29th runnerup result.

Franchitti, who won the first of his four series titles with Andretti Green Racing in 2007, congratulated the sport’s newest championship organization.

“That was a surprise,” said Franchitti, referring to Power’s crash and the eventual outcome. “Congratulations to the Andretti guys. Good friends of mine. I’m happy to see them do that. Well-done to Ryan, he drove a great race. I just wish I could have hung on there for a couple of seconds and won this race.”

– John Sturbin can be reached at jsturbin@racintoday.com

Results of the MAVTV 500 IZOD IndyCar Series event on the 2-mile Auto Club Speedway, with order of finish, starting position in parentheses, driver, chassis/engine, laps completed and reason out (if any):

1. (5) Ed Carpenter, Dallara/Chevy, 250, Running

2. (9) Dario Franchitti, Dallara/Honda, 250, Running

3. (15) Scott Dixon, Dallara/Honda, 250, Running

4. (22) Ryan Hunter-Reay, Dallara/Chevy, 250, Running

5. (17) Helio Castroneves, Dallara/Chevy, 250, Running

6. (18) Graham Rahal, Dallara/Honda, 250, Running

7. (21) Takuma Sato, Dallara/Honda, 249, Contact

8. (1) Marco Andretti, Dallara/Chevy, 249, Running

9. (7) Katherine Legge, Dallara/Chevy, 249, Running

10. (23) Charlie Kimball, Dallara/Honda, 249, Running

11. (4) JR Hildebrand, Dallara/Chevy, 248, Running

12. (12) James Jakes, Dallara/Honda, 248, Running

13. (19) James Hinchcliffe, Dallara/Chevy, 247, Running

14. (24) Wade Cunningham, Dallara/Honda, 246, Running

15. (20) Simon Pagenaud, Dallara/Honda, 246, Running

16. (14) Josef Newgarden, Dallara/Honda, 244, Running

17. (2) Ryan Briscoe, Dallara/Chevy, 244, Running

18. (3) Tony Kanaan, Dallara/Chevy, 240, Contact

19. (8) Oriol Servia, Dallara/Chevy, 231, Running

20. (16) Alex Tagliani, Dallara/Honda, 229, Contact

21. (10) Sebastian Saavedra, Dallara/Chevy, 118, Electrical

22. (6) Rubens Barrichello, Dallara/Chevy, 107, Mechanical

23. (25) Justin Wilson, Dallara/Honda, 80, Mechanical

24. (13) Will Power, Dallara/Chevy, 66, Contact

25. (11) E.J. Viso, Dallara/Chevy, 65, Mechanical

26. (26) Simona de Silvestro, Dallara/Lotus, 16, Mechanical

Winner’s average speed: 168.939 mph. Time of race: 2:57:34.7433.

Margin of victory: 1.9132. Cautions: 10 for 43 Laps.

Lead changes: 29

Lap-leaders: Kanaan 1, Andretti 2 – 4, Hildebrand 5 – 35, Briscoe 36 – 37, Sato 38 – 39, Newgarden 40, Hildebrand 41 – 65, Carpenter 66 – 75, Jakes 76 – 85, Carpenter 86 – 109, Dixon 110, Carpenter 111 – 122, Dixon 123 – 133, Kanaan 134 – 147, Castroneves 148 – 149, Sato 150 – 152, Kanaan 153 – 184, Dixon 185 – 195, Carpenter 196, Dixon 197 – 198, Carpenter 199 – 203, Tagliani 204 – 217, Carpenter 218, Tagliani 219 – 223, Franchitti 224 – 225, Tagliani 226 – 227, Sato 228, Carpenter 229 – 236, Franchitti 237 – 249, Carpenter 250.

Point standings: Hunter- Reay 468, Power 465, Dixon 435, Castroneves 431, Pagenaud 387, Briscoe 370, Franchitti 363, Hinchliffe 358, Kanaan 351, Rahal 333.

Andretti Autosport won its first IndyCar championship. (INDYCAR/LAT USA)

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Sunday, September 16 2012
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