Late pass gives Ryan Hunter-Reay the IndyCar win

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STORY BY BRUCE MARTIN

LEEDS, Alabama – As Ryan Hunter-Reay climbed out of his winning Dallara/Chevrolet in Victory Lane at Barber Motorsports Part late Sunday afternoon there was a big “Brazilian Doughnut” on the right side pod. Hunter-Reay, the winner of Sunday’s Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama, was unaware of the big, black wheel mark on his race car from contact with Team Penske driver Helio Castroneves in Turn 5 on Lap 48.

It was a reminder of just how close it could have been the “End of the Road” for the defending IZOD IndyCar Series champion at Andretti Autosport.

“Yeah, you’re right — that could have been the end of the road for me with a broken suspension,” said the defending IZOD IndyCar Series champion. “I’m sure we bent the tow a little bit on our car because it was lighter going to the left, the handling was.  Yeah, glad we both got out of that one.  That was a close call.

“Yeah, I had a ‘Brazilian Doughnut’ on the side of the car.  We were just racing hard, got on the inside and I couldn’t slow the car down.  I think Helio saw me coming.  He was turning down, saw me coming but he probably figured I’d be turning for that left-hander, too.  I couldn’t slow the car down. Luckily we made contact and both of us continued on, continued to race hard with no issues.”

Although the incident cost Hunter-Reay the lead and put Castroneves in front for the next 25 laps, Hunter-Reay’s decisive moment of the race came in the same Turn 5 against the same driver – Castroneves.

After Hunter-Reay hounded Castroneves lap-after-lap he was finally able to make the race-winning pass in Turn 5 on Lap 75.

The Andretti Autosport driver led the rest of the way, defeating Target/Chip Ganassi Racing’s Scott Dixon by 0.6363-seconds.

“He stayed really close,” Hunter-Reay said of Dixon. “There are not many guys that you don’t want in your mirror, but Scott is one of them you really don’t want in your mirror.  He’s a veteran that doesn’t make many mistakes.  He’s won championships, the Indy 500.  He’s the best.  You know he’s going to be flawless, so you have to hit every little mark you can just to make sure that you’re not making a mistake at that crucial moment.  Had I made one mistake, he would have been by.

“It was pressure-packed.”

The victory was the 10th IndyCar win of Hunter-Reay’s career and the first since he won the Grand Prix of Baltimore last September. Hunter-Reay won the pole on Saturday to break the Team Penske streak of winning every pole for this race that began in 2010 and he also ended the Penske winning streak for the race. Castroneves won the inaugural in 2010 and Will Power won in 2011 and 2012.

Consider that Hunter-Reay’s previous best finish in this race was 12th in 2010 and 2012. On Sunday, Hunter-Reay’s racing game has improved to the point where he had a 12-second lead earlier in the race before his incident with Castroneves.

“It’s great to be in Victory Lane, showing that last year we were for real,” the winning driver said. “This was one of our weakest tracks.  To be on pole and win, I hope it’s a sign of things to come.

“It’s amazing when I think about it how different the weekend could be.  Let’s say I didn’t put that lap in qualifying in the end, you start second or third, the whole weekend is changed.  It can hinge at any point.  That’s the beauty of racing.  That’s the things that the fans don’t get to see, is how precise the whole entire execution of the weekend is.”

It was also Hunter-Reay’s first victory carrying the Car No. 1 which traditionally represents the IndyCar National Champion.

“The only way it feels different is you’re in the lead, you should win it,” Hunter-Reay explained. “You’ve got the pressure.  You’re in the lead.  Champions do not give up the lead, they win the race.  That was the biggest pressure about it.  That’s how I felt about the race car, too.  When you have a car capable of winning, you don’t give that opportunity up because they don’t come very often.

“Those two together, that’s the pressure.  Champions don’t give up the lead when they’re in it.  They seize the moment and make the most of it. It’s a good pressure, though.  Last year we were under much more pressure than anything I felt today, which helps.  Having gone through the stress of fighting a championship helps on days like today.”

It was also a winning day for Barber Motorsports Park. Zoom Motorsports, the promoter of the race, announced a crowd of 57,963 – the largest Sunday crowd since this facility has hosted IndyCar racing beginning in 2010. Last year’s crowd was 52,800. The three-day total for this year was announced 83,564 – the second-highest three-day total since the inaugural race in 2010.

INDYCAR CEO Jeff Belskus and ZOOM Motorsports president and CEO Gene Hallman announced a three-year extension for this race that will keep the IndyCar Series event through at least 2016.

“We are pleased to have agreed to terms to continue the tradition of our fast and versatile racing at Barber Motorsports Park,” Belskus said. “Not only is Barber a terrific facility to showcase our close and exciting on-track product, it also gives INDYCAR a strong presence in key southeastern markets to further help us grow our sport.”

What those fans saw was a very competitive race where the battle was decided through racing and not by fuel mileage. In earlier races on this 17-turn, 2.38-mile natural terrain road course it was often decided by fuel and pit stop strategy.

This contest featured some fierce racing including the start when cars spread out three-wide entering the uphill Turn 1. Graham Rahal ran into the back of Oriol Servia which pushed his car into Power’s Verizon machine forcing it into the grass. Power went from second to eighth because of the incident so Team Penske attempted to turn it into a two pit-stop race.

That strategy would ultimately put Power back in the lead but for just nine of the 90 laps. He would go on the finish fifth.

“It was a tough start for us, we couldn’t get in the right slot and then committed to a different strategy to hopefully get the Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet on the podium,” Power said. “We thought we had a good plan and just needed a yellow at any point after Lap 31. Unfortunately it didn’t come and we fought for the fifth place finish. It isn’t exactly what we wanted to get out of the weekend but is still a good points day and gets us closer to the top.”

The race was slowed by just one yellow flag from Laps 2-5 for debris that came off James Hinchcliffe’s car. When the safety crew attempted to tow the car back to pit lane the rear wheel came off the car so INDYCAR officials decided it was best to leave Hinchcliffe parked in a safe runoff area of the race course.

That is where the driver that opened the season with a victory watched the rest of the rest as a stranded spectator.

“I wish I could have taken a nap, but these race cars are going around making all this noise — it’s really rude of them,” said Hinchcliffe, who actually got out of his car and stretched on Lap 75. “Sitting in that one position. Normally you’re working in the car. We got hit on Lap 1 and when we got the call for one to go (for the green flag) the wheel came off. I was hoping they were going to let us tow back and throw a new one on because nothing else was bent.

“But you dig yourself in a hole; qualify back there and these things happen. It’s a weekend to forget. We just have to come back stronger and get the GoDaddy car back on the podium.”

Once Hunter-Reay got past Castroneves for the lead he still had to contend with the hard-charging Dixon, who has finished second each of the four years he has raced here.

“I’m going to go buy a bridesmaid’s dress tonight and party pretty hard,” Dixon said. “It’s frustrating.”

“Better than third,” quipped Castroneves.

“Last year we made our own mistake to not win the race,” Dixon continued. “But it’s still good points.  I think we’re second in the championship.  I think Helio is leading.  It’s good at the minute.

“You know, it would really be nice to win at this place sometime.”

Charlie Kimball finished fourth for team owner Chip Ganassi to give Honda two cars in the top four.

A.J. Allmendinger drove in his first IZOD IndyCar Series race and finished 19th after running in the top 10 much of the day. Allmendinger stalled the car on his final pit stop on Lap 64 while he was running in the top 10.

“All in all today was a good day in the No. 2 IZOD Team Penske Chevy and there are a lot of positives to take out of it,” Allmendinger said. “We had a good start and I thought I was pacing myself well, we could have had a top-10 day without the couple breaks against us. It was a good day with a bad stall and unfortunately after that point we were saving fuel so it made it tough to make up ground. But I know that I can compete with these guys and look forward to getting even better at Long Beach.”

And four-time IndyCar champion Dario Franchitti had another miserable race, dropping out with a broken header. He has finished 25th in each of the first two races this season.

“We had a header problem on the Banana Boat car and that led to some electrical issues that took out the clutch,” Franchitti said. “The guys worked real hard to get the car back together. Tough day for us.”

While the tide appears to have turned for Franchitti, Hunter-Reay delivered with a championship performance after a struck throttle foiled his race at St. Petersburg two weeks ago. He continues to compete at a high level and predicts even better things to come.

“I felt like coming into Barber this was going to be the start of our season,” he said. “We had a big hole to dig out of from St. Pete.  We had a stuck throttle.  We pulled a win.  That’s a new feat for us at Andretti Autosport.  The guys have done a great job in the off-season.  Several times in the off-season I said our biggest weaknesses were the permanent road courses like Barber and Sonoma, and the big super speedways like Texas and Fontana.

“The guys gave me a great car.  I had more pressure today than anything bringing a car home that I knew was capable of winning.  That was the biggest pressure.”

Champions perform under pressure and that is exactly what the defending series champion did on Sunday.