For the first time since Sam Hornish, Jr. triumphed with Penske Racing in 2006, the IZOD IndyCar Series championship was excitingly captured by an American driver. On Saturday, September 15, Ryan Hunter-Reay used a 4th place finish in the MAVTV 500 at California Speedway to claim the prestigious honor by exceeding 3 time runner-up Will Power by a mere 3 points. This is the 1st IndyCar title for the 31 year-old Hunter-Reay and the 2nd for team owner Michael Andretti, who claimed the 2004 championship with Tony Kanaan. Here is a look at the memorable moments of a magical season for Ryan Hunter-Reay.
-- 2012 began robustly for the Andretti Autosport driver with a 3rd place finish on the streets of St. Petersburg in March. Despite an additional 2nd place the following month in Brazil, Power seized a convincing early lead with 3 wins in the first 4 races. Meanwhile, Hunter-Reay slumped to 4th in the standings during the same period. These 4 events were all staged on road courses and Hunter-Reay surely realized the need to gain ground in the middle of the schedule, which favored oval racing.
-- Indianapolis had been a disaster for Hunter-Reay in 2011, when he failed to qualify an underpowered Andretti Autosport ride for the famed race. His performance in time trials this year was greatly improved, as the eventual series champion picked up the 3rd starting spot for the Memorial Day weekend race. However, a suspension problem on lap 123 proved fatal and Hunter-Reay disappointingly settled for 27th. Fortunately, Power struggled as well and a lap 79 crash left the Australian in 28th place.
-- Neither Hunter-Reay nor Power gained a bounce from the Indy 500. Hunter-Reay followed the big race with a 7th at Belle Isle and a miserable 21st at Texas Motor Speedway, where he dropped out early due to engine failure. Though very proficiency on ovals, Hunter-Reay has never earned a top 5 at Texas and departed the track in a season-worst 7th in points.
-- Though Hunter-Reay ultimately won the championship at Fontana, it was made possible by a 3 race winning streak in mid-2012 that matched Power's earlier dominance. The initial win was particularly satisfying, as Michael Andretti's company promoted the June event at the legendary Milwaukee Mile. Starting in 2nd position, Hunter-Reay led a race-high 84 laps to win convincingly. With series' action remaining on ovals, the Fort Lauderdale resident provided Andretti Autosport with its 3rd consecutive victory at Iowa Speedway by leading the race's final 13 laps. Finally, a 2 week layoff cool down the hot driver, as Hunter-Reay captured July's street course race in Toronto. Impressively advancing from the 6th starting position, the champ led a race-high 36 laps for his 1st road course triumph since April 2010. After 10 of 15 events, Hunter-Reay rose to 2nd in points with Power squarely in his cross-hairs.
-- Just as quickly as Hunter-Reay had gained momentum, the 31 year-old squandered it during the next 3 events by finishing beyond the top 10 in 2 of 3 races. Frustratingly wrecked out of Sonoma due to an idiotic move by Alex Tagliani, Hunter-Reay was fortunate Power could not emerge victorious in the year's final 11 races. Still occupying 2nd place, the Andretti Autosport driver was a distant 36 points behind his Penske rival with 2 races remaining.
-- Pleasing his boss on multiple levels, Hunter-Reay won the year's next-to-last race on the streets of Baltimore, which was also the year's 2nd event promoted by Michael Andretti. Though Power earned pole position and was returning as the 2011 winner, he was set back by a poor decision to use slower rain tires in a light sprinkle that faded quickly. Hunter-Reay's team avoided such a mistake and grabbed its series-high 4th checkered flag of the season.
-- The IndyCar championship did not come easily for Hunter-Reay, who started the year's final race at Fontana in 17th place. He coincidentally needed to overcome an intimidating 17 point deficit. Perhaps the number was lucky for the 6 year series veteran, as a single car crash on lap 56 took out Power and made the title more attainable. Nevertheless, with laps winding down and his rival off the track, Hunter-Reay needed to accrue track position rapidly in order to earn the points from a needed top 5 finish. A late red flag and hard charging Helio Castroneves were nerve-wracking for fans of the Team DHL/Sun Drop car. Yet, as fellow American Ed Carpenter passed Dario Franchitti for the win on the final lap, Hunter-Reay safely crossed the finish line in 4th place. The American had completed a historic comeback and savored the moment with his team in a fitting celebration at victory lane. Ryan Hunter-Reay is 2012 IndyCar champion and will be immortalized in open-wheel history.
Yahoo! Sports, IndyCar.com, SportsIllustrated.cnn.com.
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Jeff Briscoe is a longtime follower of the IZOD IndyCar Series and a motorsports fan who prefers his racing without fenders. He resides in Florida, proud home of the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg.
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