Hunter-Reay Leads American Sweep In Iowa

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Sunday, July 19 2015
Ryan Hunter-Reay ended a season-long slump on Saturday night when he won the IndyCar Series race in Iowa. (Photo courtesy of the Verizon IndyCar Series)

Ryan Hunter-Reay ended a season-long slump on Saturday night when he won the IndyCar Series race in Iowa. (Photo courtesy of the Verizon IndyCar Series)

Ryan Hunter-Reay’s season-long nightmare is over.

Mired in a baffling and borderline embarrassing slump, Hunter-Reay led a sweep by American drivers of the top four finishing positions and six of the top seven – en route to Victory Lane after Saturday night’s ninth annual Iowa Corn 300. RHR’s initial Verizon IndyCar Series win of the 2015 season was his first in 20 starts dating to last year’s 262.2-mile race around the 0.894-mile oval amid the cornfields of Newton.

Hunter-Reay prevailed by 0.5046-seconds over two-time 2015 race-winner Josef Newgarden to become the ninth different winner in 13 series events. Sunoco Rookie of the Year candidate Sage Karam finished a career-high third. Graham Rahal placed fourth for his third consecutive top-five finish, and Carlos Munoz, who won one-half of the doubleheader at Detroit in May, was fifth.

The last time Americans swept the podium in a Verizon IndyCar Series event was the 2006 Indianapolis 500, when Michael Andretti – now Hunter-Reay’s car-owner at Andretti Autosport – followed winner Sam Hornish Jr. of Team Penske and son Marco Andretti across the line in one of the most historic finishes at the 2.5-mile Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Saturday night’s outcome was the sixth consecutive victory for Andretti Autosport at Iowa Speedway and third at the bull ring for Hunter-Reay, who beat CFH Racing’s Newgarden to the finish line by 0.5814-seconds one year ago. RHR previously won at the facility built by former NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion Rusty Wallace in 2012.

Doesn’t even compare,” said Hunter-Reay, driver of the No. 28 DHL Honda. “The win last year was pretty cool because Michael made a great call. I was pretty skeptical at the time. We blitzed the field at the end of the race. That was a lot of fun.

“But this is a big deal, to come in and to be on the slump we’ve been on, to come in from ninth, work at it, earn the race win, really earn it in the fashion that we did – it’s a statement win. It’s big for us. It’s big for everybody involved in this team.”

The series champion in 2012 and the 2014 Indy 500 winner, RHR’s 2015 season has been a disaster. He began the night with no poles or wins, one top-three result, one top-five and three top-10s in 12 starts. Nine of his finishes were 11th or worse and he stood 14th in points. Prior to Saturday night, Hunter-Reay had led only one race, at the 2-mile Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif., for a total of three laps.

“It’s been a tough season, but that makes this win sweet. It really does,” said Hunter-Reay, who took the lead from Rahal on Lap 264 and led the final 37 circuits. “The last 20 laps felt like an hour and a-half just knowing how important this was to me, to the team, to our partners, DHL, Auto Nation, Honda. This is a big win.

“We went out and earned this one. We took it away from them – that’s a big deal. So this was a massive win for the team. Feels great to be back in Victory Lane. Certainly I’m not happy with the way the season’s gone at all. More than anything at all, I just feel relief, like a big exhale is how I can describe it.”

Michael Andretti reiterated he has no explanation for the team’s over-the-top success rate at Iowa Speedway.  “We love coming here. Hopefully, we come back here many, many more times,” Andretti said. “I’m not telling (RHR) anything except for, ‘Go fast.’ It’s been a total team effort. We tested here. Marco came up with a really good setup. Then from there, they just dialed it in in practice. We qualified so-so, but I know they were real happy with their cars for the race.

“We just didn’t know what was going to actually happen until we got out there. It just seemed like as the race went on, Ryan in particular just got stronger and stronger as it got cooler and cooler. His car got better and better. They put themselves in a good position with the pit stops when they pitted. Came out in front. He was able to keep that track position.”

Following a Lap 278 restart, Hunter-Reay held off multiple challenges by Newgarden in the No. 67 Wichita State University/CFH Racing Chevrolet. “To finish second was bittersweet,” said Newgarden, who qualified seventh. “We had a winning car, but it’s a credit to the team to finish second.

“I feared at the end if we were in a shootout – we were behind, we weren’t leading – it was going to be really difficult and it was. I think I probably needed another 20 laps or so, some lapped traffic, I think I could have done something with Ryan but it was really tough. It was pedal to the metal there. Couldn’t do anything with him.

“I was flat-out at the end. I couldn’t even close on him. I couldn’t do anything. So I tried as much as I could to shorten up my line, try to make some gains on him. He wasn’t really coming back to me. That’s why I was hoping we would get some traffic. I was fast in front of him. For the most part, I had to work really hard to keep him behind me. He was faster than me. I was still flat-out in front of him at that point.”

Karam’s first series podium was interrupted on pit road by an irate Ed Carpenter, who admonished the rookie to “grow up” after feeling he was unnecessarily squeezed during the closing laps. But that incident failed to dampen Karam’s celebration.

“I’m so excited to get my first podium finish in the Verizon IndyCar Series,” said Karam, driver of the No. 8 Comfort Revolution/Big Machine Records Chevrolet fielded by Chip Ganassi Racing. “The team did a great job all around. I think we really put together an entire race, and that meant from start to finish we executed. It’s such a great feeling and running-up front is our goal.

“I’ve felt this momentum was starting to build in Fontana and Milwaukee and am glad we were able to finish things off here at Iowa. I think we had a really, really fast car, too. It seemed like I had the fastest car on the track. The only negative thing about the race I would say was the lapped traffic respect. They’re racing the leaders a little too hard, I think. But that’s racing. We got stuck in the middle there on the restart, fell from third to sixth, made it back up to third. Running down the leaders, just ran out of laps.”

Rahal, who moved into second place in the driver championship point standings, described the 300-lapper as his “hardest race ever” after having to un-lap himself twice.

“First we had the right rear go down and then the car just wouldn’t shift,” said Rahal, driver of the Mi-Jack/Steak ‘n Shake Honda fielded by Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing. “You don’t know how tough that is around here when you’re in traffic and you need to go down to fifth, fourth gear at times and I couldn’t do anything. It was a killer for me.

“We were quicker than Hunter-Reay, that’s for sure, which is frustrating. When the car was working right, we passed all those guys. But dude, I’m spent. I’m ready for a good beer and a nice sleep. The car was good, very competitive, very consistent over the long run and that’s what helped me. On my starts and restarts I tried to be a little aggressive and go high there and it worked out for me.

“Nights like tonight are what build character, and what builds champions so I hope we can get there. It speaks volumes for this team that we are second in the points. We can win Honda a championship. We’ve got three more races to go and are going to two tracks I think we can be really strong at (Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course and Sonoma (Calif.) Raceway) and Pocono.”

Juan Pablo Montoya’s championship point lead appeared to take a hit when the No. 2 Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet made right-side contact with the Turn 2 SAFER Barrier on Lap 10. It was the two-time/reigning Indy 500 champion’s first DNF of the season and first in 18 races since last year’s event at Iowa Speedway.

“We had a good car. It was a little loose the first couple of laps, so I was just really taking it easy, biding my time,” said Montoya, who qualified third. “Something broke.”

A mechanical issue in the final third of the race plagued the No. 9 Target Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet of three-time series champion Scott Dixon, who entered the race 54 points behind Montoya. Meanwhile, an 11th-place finish by pole-sitter Helio Castroneves of Team Penske will allow Montoya to enter the Honda Indy 200 at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course on Aug. 2 relatively unscathed.

Rahal now is 42 points behind JPM while Dixon, who finished 18th, is 48 points back. Castroneves is 54 points out of the lead.

Thoughts of former teammate Jules Bianchi drowned-out voices on Max Chilton’s radio over the final five laps as he drove to victory in Saturday’s Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires race at Iowa Speedway.

Englishman Chilton competed against, learned from and quickly became friends with Bianchi during two years with the Marussia F1 team. Chilton dedicated his first victory in Indy Lights and his first since 2012 in Singapore in the GP2 Series to Bianchi, who died Friday at the Centre Hospitalier Universitaire (CHU) in Nice, France. Bianchi, 25, had remained in a coma following an accident on Oct. 5, 2014 at the Suzuka Circuit during the Formula 1 Japanese Grand Prix. Bianchi, who drove for Marussia F1 in 2013-14 and was a Scuderia Ferrari test driver, struck a safety vehicle when his car appeared to hydroplane off the track at Suzuka in wet conditions. The safety vehicle was moving another disabled car.

Bianchi’s parents, Philippe and Christine, announced their son’s passing Friday.

“I knew if Jules was here, he would be going for that race win so I wanted to do that for him,” said Chilton, who won the 100-lapper from pole in the No. 14 Carlin entry. “I’ve learned a lot from him. He was a driver destined to be a world champion. It’s been difficult and I could never imagine this was going to happen. I dedicate this one to him.”

Chilton also addressed the crowd during pre-race ceremonies, requesting a moment of silence in remembrance of Bianchi.

Verizon IndyCar Series rookie Stefano Coletti of Monaco, another a friend of Bianchi, placed a decal on the front of the No. 4 KV Racing Technology Chevrolet that read, “Godspeed Jules Bianchi RIP.”

Results Saturday of the Iowa Corn 300 Verizon IndyCar Series race on the 0.894-mile Iowa Speedway oval, with order of finish, starting position in parentheses, driver, aero kit-engine, laps completed and reason out (if any):

1. (9) Ryan Hunter-Reay, Honda, 300, Running
2. (7) Josef Newgarden, Chevrolet, 300, Running
3. (10) Sage Karam, Chevrolet, 300, Running
4. (17) Graham Rahal, Honda, 300, Running
5. (12) Carlos Munoz, Honda, 300, Running
6. (11) Ed Carpenter, Chevrolet, 300, Running
7. (8) Marco Andretti, Honda, 300, Running
8. (19) Ryan Briscoe, Honda, 300, Running
9. (24) Sebastien Bourdais, Chevrolet, 300, Running
10. (6) Will Power, Chevrolet, 300, Running
11. (1) Helio Castroneves, Chevrolet, 300, Running
12. (20) Tristan Vautier, Honda, 299, Running
13. (21) Jack Hawksworth, Honda, 299, Running
14. (5) Simon Pagenaud, Chevrolet, 299, Running
15. (14) James Jakes, Honda, 299, Running
16. (23) Gabby Chaves, Honda, 299, Running
17. (18) Justin Wilson, Honda, 297, Running
18. (4) Scott Dixon, Chevrolet, 263, Running
19. (15) Takuma Sato, Honda, 260, Contact
20. (13) Stefano Coletti, Chevrolet, 191, Contact
21. (2) Tony Kanaan, Chevrolet, 189, Mechanical
22. (16) Charlie Kimball, Chevrolet, 170, Contact
23. (22) Pippa Mann, Honda, 136, Handling
24. (3) Juan Pablo Montoya, Chevrolet, 9, Contact

Race Statistics
Winners average speed: 129.943 mph
Time of Race: 02:03:50.3315
Margin of victory: 0.5046-seconds
Cautions: 6 for 73 laps
Lead changes: 14 among 10 drivers

Lap Leaders:
Castroneves 1
Kanaan 2 – 68
Castroneves 69 – 77
Kanaan 78 – 80
Power 81 – 82
Jakes 83 – 85
Bourdais 86 -91
Kimball 92 – 98
Castroneves 99 – 105
Newgarden 106 – 125
Castroneves 126 – 158
Newgarden 159 – 249
Hawksworth 250 – 256
Rahal 257 – 263
Hunter-Reay 264 – 300

Verizon IndyCar Series Point Standings: Montoya 445, Rahal 403, Dixon 397, Castroneves 391, Power 390, Bourdais 366, Andretti 358, Newgarden 352, Kanaan 324, Pagenaud 294.

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Sunday, July 19 2015
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