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Hunter-Reay looks to come out swinging in 2013

By winning the 2012 IZOD IndyCar Series championship in dramatic, come-from-behind fashion Hunter-Reay delivered on Andretti’s promise at Baltimore that “We’re going to win this thing.”

Bruce Martin

Fox59.com

3:42 PM PDT, September 20, 2012

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FONTANA, California – Now that Ryan Hunter-Reay has given the United States its first IZOD IndyCar Series champion since Sam Hornish, Jr. in 2006, the next step is for the Andretti Autosport driver to become the first American-born Indianapolis 500 winner since Hornish did it that same year.

"We're going to come out swinging," Hunter-Reay said of next year's 97th Indianapolis 500. "We were on the front row this year and had a car issue sideline us while running in the top three or four. I have full belief we can come back and win the Indianapolis 500.

"Indy has always been my goal and that is something we are absolutely focused on achieving. We'll be back against next year and we'll be back fighting hard, trust me."

It was at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 2011 that may have actually started Hunter-Reay's drive to the championship in 2012. He missed making the 33-driver starting lineup on Bump Day and was prepared to watch the 100th Anniversary Indianapolis 500 on the sidelines. At the time, team owner Michael Andretti called it the lowest point in his career but Andretti struck a deal with fellow team owner A.J. Foyt to put Hunter-Reay in a car that was already qualified by Bruno Junqueira.

Although the move was quite unpopular at the time because Junqueira had earned his way into the starting lineup it was not unprecedented. It wasn't the way Hunter-Reay wanted to get into the race but with big-time sponsors DHL and Sun-Drop supporting his effort at Andretti Autosport a business decision had to be made to satisfy the sponsors.

It also lit a fire under his crew at Andretti Autosport.

"That was certainly a low point for us; the point that was a kick in the pants," Hunter-Reay recalled. "That got us going to where we are today because we hit that low; we hit that bottom. Michael said to me at the time 'This will never happen again, we are going to win races. Enough of this.' We went out and did really well after Indy that year, won a race at New Hampshire and closed out the season among the best in points for the second half of the season.

"Going into 2012 we had that momentum and this year is a testament to how far we have come since 2011."

Hunter-Reay can celebrate a championship as the first driver from the United States to win the IZOD IndyCar Series title since Sam Hornish, Jr. in 2006.

"I'm honored to raise that American flag and bring the title back to America," Hunter-Reay said. "It's something I've always wanted to do, it's a dream come true and to hold that American flag up and bring the title back to the United States. It's something I've always wanted to do. It's a dream come true. To hold that American flag with the Astor Cup for the IndyCar title is magical to me.

"I feel a lot of patriotic pride because as a kid I grew up watching the American drivers and that is who I pulled for. I'm proud of my country – it's an American series and to get a chance to raise the flag with a championship makes it very special.

"It's important. It's important to me. I'm very proud of my country. I always have been. I've always looked up to the American drivers when I first started this whole deal as a fan of the IndyCar Series, a genuine fan before I raced go‑karts I followed the American greats. That really appealed to me. Now here I am on the other side, and I see these kids that are looking up to us drivers. Man, it's so cool being on the other side of it all. I mean, to do this against the Ganassis, and the Penskes, and the talent in the series as even Dario and Will and all these guys have said. I feel like I'm up against the best in the world. It's just amazing to get it done. I'm running out of words to describe it."

Andretti was one of the greatest IndyCar drivers the United States ever produced and he feels the pride of what his team accomplished this season.

"I think it's great when an American beats the best in the world, and that's what happened," Andretti said. "That is what makes its mean something. If it was just All‑Americans out there, then it doesn't mean as much. But when an American can beat all these other great drivers from different countries, it's a great thing. So I'm very proud to be an American. I'm very proud of Ryan, so it's a good feeling."

By winning the 2012 IZOD IndyCar Series championship in dramatic, come-from-behind fashion Hunter-Reay delivered on Andretti's promise at Baltimore that "We're going to win this thing."

Consider that Hunter-Reay was in contention for the victory at the Raceway at Sonoma on August 26 when he was running third as the field lined up for a late-race restart. But as the field entered Turn 3, he was tagged from behind by Alex Tagliani, which led to a face-to-face confrontation on pit lane between the two drivers following the race. Instead of being just a few points behind Team Penske's Will Power the driver from Andretti Autosport would head to Baltimore 36 points out of the lead.

During qualifications for the Grand Prix of Baltimore Hunter-Reay couldn't advance out of the first round of qualifications and combined with Power winning the pole he was 37 points out of the lead with just two races remaining.

It looked grim for both Hunter-Reay and Andretti especially when Power was running away from the field in the early portion of the street race at Baltimore.

But that is when the key decision of the season not only helped Hunter-Reay win the race but go on to win the championship.

When it started to rain, Andretti made a bold decision to keep Hunter-Reay on the track on dry tires while Power and others pitted for rain tires. The rain held off, the track dried and Hunter-Reay was in the lead and would go on to win the race, trimming the championship deficit to 17 points heading into the season's final race – the October 15 MAVTV 500 at Auto Club Speedway.

"That was massive, for sure," Hunter-Reay recalled. "It's things like that where you can come back. Decisions like that that you have to make the right ones. We made the right one.

"I think there were three key moments in that race at Baltimore. Staying out on the dry tires when it was raining which was extremely difficult, the restarts and capitalizing on those and fighting through the field after we made the pit stop taking our second set of Red tires. We were buried in the field and had to pass a lot of cars there. That was pivotal. That kept us in the game not only statistically but mentally. We knew we could do it at Fontana if we kept going what we did all season.

"It was the crack in the door we needed and the rest of the race we definitely put our foot in there. We came to Fontana with the championship race with an arm and a leg stuck in the door and we pried that thing open."

Auto racing is a sport often measured in time. It's a race against the clock and the competitors as a driver tries to be first to the checkered flag. But on Lap 55 at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana on September 15, it was a measured in inches.

When Power lost control of his Dallara/Chevrolet in the third turn attempting to pass Hunter-Reay, he hit one of the seams on the asphalt surface of the race track sending his car out of control. Power's spinning car came within inches of crashing into Hunter-Reay and if that had happened and both cars were out of the race Power would have won the championship.

Instead, Power missed Hunter-Reay but plowed into the wall destroying the left-side of his race car. Heroically, Team Penske was able to repair the damaged left-side of Power's car to get him back on the race track to finish 12 more laps in the race and finish ahead of E.J. Viso, forcing Hunter-Reay to finish in the top-five in order to claim the championship.

"It was very, very close – way too close to call," Hunter-Reay said. "It goes back to Will joking around at Baltimore when he said if we are running side-by-side at Fontana I'm going to take Hunter-Reay out. He was obviously joking when he said that.

"When Will made contact with the wall we knew at that point it was in our hands. We had to drive from 13th to sixth to win the championship and Team Penske got him out again to run some more laps so we had to finish fifth. We ended up finishing fourth to win the championship by three points. There were a lot of factors going on out there and when the team told me I had to finish this thing fifth that is when I knew it was time to go."

Hunter-Reay was struggling to run eighth in the second half of the race and had to fight his way up to sixth place. When Team Penske's Ryan Briscoe hit the wall on lap 181 that moved Hunter-Reay into fifth place. All he had to do then was maintain that position.

"For a long time there it looked like eighth was the best we could do," Hunter-Reay recalled. "We were really fighting just for eighth and sixth was the number. Then I found out I had to finish fifth. So we got aggressive and took some wing out of it to make it loose and go for it. There was nothing we could do the way we were running mid-race to win the championship. I had some great restarts, dove it in three-wide, got some positions we needed and held those guys off.

"Racing in the Indy 500 has really taught me to understand how long a 500-mile race can be so I knew there was a lot of racing left. I knew there was a lot of opportunity to make the car better on the pit stops to add more front wing and get the balance nailed. I tried not to push the car too hard when we had an overbalance in the car early in the race.

"We were quick when we needed to be and that was the end."

Hunter-Reay had a remarkable season with a series-high four victories including three wins in a row beginning with the Milwaukee Mile in June, continuing to Iowa Speedway and then a win on the streets of Toronto on July 8. By winning at Baltimore that would give Hunter-Reay two wins on the ovals and two on the street courses proving his versatility as a race driver.

"To win this championship you have to excel on all types of courses – road courses, street circuits, superspeedways and short ovals," Hunter-Reay said. "The team did an amazing job this year. It really is the most diverse series in the world."

Hunter-Reay claimed two championships in 2012 including the A.J. Foyt Trophy as the Oval Track champion of the series. Hunter-Reay drove part of the 2009 season for Foyt when Vision Racing combined its efforts with the Indy 500 legend – the first four-time winner of the Indianapolis 500.

"I really look up to A.J. – he's a great person and a legend in this sport," Hunter-Reay said. "It's great to have a trophy with his name on it."

The ability to excel on oval tracks was a key for Hunter-Reay and the inability to even finish the oval races was a major detriment to Power's quest for the championship. The Team Penske driver finished 18th in the Oval Track standings and was outscored by 82 points by Hunter-Reay. Power crashed in three of the five oval races this season.

"I feel for Will's situation," Hunter-Reay admitted. "I can't say enough about Will. He has done an amazing job in the No. 12 Verizon car but we came out on top and I feel our team was the most deserving. I feel like Will has a future championship coming soon."

He is the fourth driver at Andretti Autosport to win a championship joining Tony Kanaan in 2004, the late Dan Wheldon in 2005 and Dario Franchitti in 2007.

"What a list to be on," Hunter-Reay admitted. "That is very special to me and an honor to be on that list. To bring the championship back to Andretti Autosport is amazing. To be on that list is an honor."

Wheldon and Franchitti both won the Indianapolis 500 in the same season they gave Andretti the IZOD IndyCar Series championship. Although Hunter-Reay was unable to achieve a victory in this year's Indy 500 he's already focused on getting to victory lane at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on May 26, 2013.