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Hunter-Reay dominates Grand Prix of Long Beach

Ryan Hunter-Reay is known as a pretty face of IndyCar racing -- in addition to Danica Patrick, of course -- in good part because he’s an advertising centerpiece of the sport’s series sponsor, Izod clothing.

On the racetrack, though, the 29-year-old Hunter-Reay has endured a career that hasn’t always been so attractive. He has bounced between different teams and, before Sunday, had won only one race in the last four years.

But Hunter-Reay hasn’t forgotten how to race and, now at the helm of a capable car from the Andretti Autosport team on a part-time basis, the Floridian drove a dominant and emotional race to win the 36th Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach.

“The car was just so much fun to drive,” Hunter-Reay said. And noting the death of his mother last November, he said “this race is definitely for her. The No. 1 thing she loved was to see me racing.”

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Hunter-Reay won by 5.6 seconds over Justin Wilson on the 1.97-mile, 11-turn seaside course, and Will Power -- the red-hot Penske Racing driver who had won two of the first three races in this season’s Izod IndyCar Series -- was third after starting on the pole.

Power, in fact, helped Hunter-Reay’s cause early in the race when Power’s car inexplicably got stuck in first gear after the Australian exited the hairpin turn that leads to the long straightaway on Shoreline Drive. As Power slowed, Hunter-Reay zipped past him and barely looked back, ultimately leading 64 of the race’s 85 laps.

“I don’t know how it happened; it only happened once,” Power said, adding that he then couldn’t catch Hunter-Reay or Wilson. But “we made the best of a bad situation,” he said, and Power still leads the championship standings by 42 points over his Penske teammate Helio Castroneves, who finished seventh Sunday.

The race also was ripe with coincidence.

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Hunter-Reay was the first American-born driver to win the Grand Prix since his boss, Michael Andretti, did so in 2002. Hunter-Reay also met his fiancee, Beccy Gordon -- sister of NASCAR driver Robby Gordon -- at the Long Beach race in 2004.

Wilson said Hunter-Reay deserved the win because “he’s been quick from the first [practice] lap on Friday.” And Power said Hunter-Reay, who is signed up to drive a partial schedule for Andretti, “deserves a full-time ride. I’m pretty certain he’ll get one.”

But Andretti said the issue is whether he can secure enough sponsorship for Hunter-Reay to race all year.

“I can assure you we’re going to work very hard to make it happen,” Andretti said.

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Regardless, Hunter-Reay said, “I’m just so appreciative for what Michael has done; he’s put a lot of faith in me.”

Wilson, a British driver for the Dreyer & Reinbold team, stormed back to second after tangling early in the race with rookie Alex Lloyd and suffering a damaged front wing that was replaced in the pits.

“We got the door slammed in my face,” Wilson said. “I was pretty frustrated.” But passing Power later in the race for second “made me feel good,” he said.

Power said that “once Justin passed me, I tried [to catch him] for a couple of laps, but there was no point in putting the car in the wall.”

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Could Wilson have caught Hunter-Reay?

“This was our race,” Hunter-Reay replied. “I know we were [capable of] pulling away at any point.”

His victory ended Penske Racing’s streak of winning the first three races this season; after Power won the first two in Brazil and Florida, Castroneves won in Alabama last weekend.

Defending race winner Dario Franchitti of Target Chip Ganassi Racing finished 12th in Sunday’s race, which had only one caution period for a crash involving Graham Rahal and rookie Mario Romancini. Patrick was 16th.

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After four road-course races, the series moves to the Kansas Speedway oval May 1.

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james.peltz@latimes.com


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