Ryan Hunter-Reay will defend his Indy 500 title from middle of the pack

The first American to win since 2006, Ryan Hunter-Reay will start 16th on Sunday

When it comes to fast lap times, Ryan Hunter-Reay hasn't been particularly impressive leading up to the Indianapolis 500.

So perhaps the Floridian is right in his sweet spot.

Hunter-Reay is the defending champion of the Indianapolis 500, which he won last year by a narrow margin after starting 19th in the 33-car field.

After swapping the lead with Helio Castroneves several times in the final laps, Hunter-Reay nipped the Brazilian by less than one car length at Indianapolis Motor Speedway last year.

Hunter-Reay, the 2012 champion of the Verizon IndyCar Series, became the first American to win the race since Sam Hornish Jr. in 2006.

Again this year, Hunter-Reay qualified in the middle of the pack. He'll start 16th on Sunday in his yellow, Honda-powered No. 28 car prepared by the Andretti Autosport team.

"I'm just worried about the race," Hunter-Reay said. "We wanted to stay inside the top 20 [in qualifying]; we started 19th last year, and that turned out OK."

And in final practice Friday, the 34-year-old Hunter-Reay posted only the 31st-fastest time as his team used the one-hour session more to prepare for Sunday's 200-lap race than to set down the fastest lap.

Drivers typically like to start up front and stay there, both in hopes of avoiding crashes and because the cars tend to perform better when they're not racing in "dirty air" caused by the turbulence of other cars.

But Will Power, the Australian driver who starts second Sunday, said Hunter-Reay offered a textbook example in 2014 of how starting mid-pack can still pay off.

"I looked at Hunter-Reay last year . . . obviously he had a very strong car and a strong engine," Power said. "But in a way it was good for him to chop through all that traffic.

"He'd had so much practice at passing cars and being aggressive in really dirty air," Power said. "When he got to clean air, he was just absolutely solid."

Final practice

Power, the Team Penske driver and reigning IndyCar champion, topped the speed chart in practice Friday with a lap of 229.020 mph.

Pole-sitter Scott Dixon of Chip Ganassi Racing and his teammate Tony Kanaan, the 2013 Indy 500 winner, were second and third, respectively.

The practice session was free of the accidents that plagued earlier practice rounds, including three crashes in which the drivers' cars got airborne.

In another crash Monday, James Hinchcliffe suffered a serious leg injury when his car slammed into the wall. He'll be replaced Sunday by Ryan Briscoe.

Briscoe, another Australian who will start 31st in Sunday's race, was allowed to practice by himself Thursday to get accustomed to Hinchcliffe's car, then he was 30th in Friday's group practice.

This will be Briscoe's 10th career Indy 500 start. His best previous finish was fifth, in 2007 and again in 2012.

"First and foremost, I feel absolutely terrible for Hinch," said Briscoe, who won the Indy 500 pole in 2012. "I feel really confident that even with a few laps, I'll be able to find my groove again."

Another driver, Carlos Huertas, will miss Sunday's race because of an inner-ear infection, IndyCar announced. The 23-year-old Colombian will be replaced by Tristan Vautier.

Indy Lights race

Jack Harvey won the Freedom 100, a race in IndyCar's second-level Indy Lights Series, on Friday at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Harvey won the race under caution after Ed Jones crashed into the outside wall with three laps left in the event.

Etc.

IndyCar said it would add a street race in downtown Boston to its schedule next year.

james.peltz@latimes.com

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