FONTANA, Calif. – Ryan Hunter-Reay opened the IndyCar season determined to take his career to another level.
He had a chance to race for the season-opening win at St. Pete. But when fuel became an issue, and his crew implored him to save gas over the closing laps, he backed off and settled for a third-place finish.
It’s not easy to ask a driver, especially one who opened the season with all of three IndyCar victories, not to chase the checkered flag. Hunter-Reay willingly did it, though, because he’d changed his thinking and made the big picture – collecting every point possible – his focus.
It paid off Saturday night when Hunter-Reay capped a career year with his first championship at a major racing level. In finishing fourth, he beat Will Power by three points for the IndyCar title.
I always believed that if I got the right opportunity and worked hard enough that I could be in this position, he said.
Hunter-Reay certainly had to earn it Saturday night at Auto Club Speedway.
He trailed Power by 17 points at the start of the finale and knew he’d need a great race and a lot of help from Power to snatch away the title.
The help came 55 laps in, when Power, while racing Hunter-Reay for position, lost control of his car as it slipped in a seam in the speedway. Power crashed, and for the third consecutive year, his title chances seemed gone.
Penske Racing crew members went to work repairing Power’s car enough to get him back on track. If he could run 12 more laps, he’d gain another spot in the standings and force Hunter-Reay to finish fifth or better.
Trust me, I was not happy when I heard we had to finish one more position up because they got him back out, Hunter-Reay said. That was a curveball I wasn’t expecting.
Power completed those 12 laps, and then he went back to his team truck to watch on television.
Hunter-Reay worked close to where he needed to be. Then came another curveball – a rare red-flag stoppage for Tony Kanaan’s late accident, and the call from race control nearly unraveled the team.
He pulled it out in the end, giving Andretti his fourth IndyCar championship as an owner but first since 2007.
At the end of the day, Hunter-Reay did a very solid job, Power said. Won more races than anyone. Won on ovals, road courses, and he’s definitely a deserving champion. There is no question.