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Hunter-Reay races like a champ, takes checkered flag at Alabama

The SportsXchange

Birmingham, Ala. -- IndyCar's champion is back in form.

Ryan Hunter-Reay overcame mid-race contact with Helio Castroneves, then passed the Brazilian on his way to winning the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama at Barber Motorsports Park.

"He turned the car down and I wasn't slowed down yet," Hunter-Reay said. "We touched, but we both were able to continue. Thank god we got out of that one. That could have been the end of (the race)."

Hunter-Reay won for the 10th time in his career, but the first time as a series champion. His car became the first bearing No. 1 to win in this sport since Sebastien Bourdais in Champ Car in Mexico City in 2007.

Hunter-Reay said the pressure to win when the car is good enough to win was significant.

"Champions do not give up the lead, they seize the moment," he said. "It's pressure, but it's good pressure."

He said the race was set up for him with a strong final lap of Saturday's qualifying session. That's where he won the pole.

"If we start second or third it's a different story," he said. "The whole weekend can change."

Scott Dixon finished second at this track for the fourth straight year. It was the first time a Team Penske car didn't win here.

"It's still good points," Dixon said. "But it would really be nice to win one of these sometime."

Castroneves, who won in 2010, finished third, in part because he was on the slower black Firestone tires for the final stint. Like most of the frontrunners, Charlie Kimball had Firestone's alternate red tires on his car, and he finished fourth.

Castroneves has the series points lead by nine over Dixon. Castroneves has never won an IndyCar championship.

Kimball had the second-best finish of his career, the only one better a second last year at Toronto.

Will Power, the winner of the past two races at this track, started this one in second place but went wide entering the first turn of the first lap as he sought to avoid the aggressiveness of Kimball, rookie Tristan Vautier and Marco Andretti. But that run through the grass cost him six positions.

Kimball said a move by Vautier caused "a chain reaction behind us."

Power had a similar problem after a restart from a caution on Lap 2. He didn't push the Team Penske car as far the second time, but it was enough to cost him a couple of more positions.

Already behind in the sequence, the team went to fuel-saving mode, turning the race into one fewer pit stops. Power did an admirable job with the handicap and finished fifth.

That early caution was caused by a traffic jam on the opening lap. Where it started was difficult to judge, but it collected in one form or another James Hinchcliffe, the winner of the season-opening race in St. Petersburg, Fla., along with Oriol Servia and Graham Rahal. Servia took a hit from behind from Rahal, requiring trips to pit road for repairs for both.

Hinchcliffe didn't immediately appear to have damage, but a rear tire was punctured, causing him to stop on the course.

The worst part was, crews were only able to tow Hinchcliffe part of the way back to pit road before the tire came off. With race control ready to resume the action, Hinchcliffe and his car got left in a hideway on the backstretch.

Finally, on Lap 71, Andretti Autosport called for him to get out of the car. He did, stretching for the cameras before climbing out.

Dixon understood the frustration. He got left out on the course last year at Long Beach.

"It makes for a long day," Dixon said. "Luckily the fans gave me an umbrella to keep cool with."

It is believed to be the first time since 1967 that the sport's first race winner of the season finished last in the second race. That last occurrence was by Lloyd Ruby.

Dario Franchitti, a four-time IndyCar champion, had his second consecutive bad race. He finished last in St. Petersburg after hitting the Turn 3 wall following a pit stop, and Sunday his Honda-powered car suffered a broken header. He is last in the point standings.

AJ Allmendinger had a strong start to his first IndyCar Series race, but he drifted back. The worst part of his day came on Lap 65 when the car stalled during a pit stop. He apologized to the crew on the radio.

Race results

1. Ryan Hunter-Reay, Andretti Autosport

2. Scott Dixon, Ganassi Racing

3. Helio Castroneves, Team Penske

4. Charlie Kimball, Ganassi Racing

5. Will Power, Team Penske

6. Simon Pagenaud, Schmidt Hamilton Motorsports

7. Marco Andretti, Andretti Autosport

8. Justin Wilson, Dale Coyne Racing

9. Josef Newgarden, Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing

10. Tristan Vautier, Schmidt Peterson Motorsports

11. Alex Tagliani, Barracuda Racing

12. EJ Viso, Andretti Autosport

13. Tony Kanaan, KV Racing Technology-SH Racing

14. Takuma Sato, A.J. Foyt Racing

15. Oriol Servia, Panther DRR

16. Sebastien Bourdais, Dragon Racing

17. JR Hildebrand, Panther Racing

18. Simona De Silvestro, KV Racing Technology

19. AJ Allmendinger, Team Penske

20. Sebastian Saavedra, Dragon Racing

21. Graham Rahal, Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing

22. Ed Carpenter, Ed Carpenter Racing

23. James Jakes, Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing

24. Ana Beatriz, Dale Coyne Racing

25. Dario Franchitti, Ganassi Racing

26. James Hinchcliffe, Andretti Autosport
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