An All-American night at Fontana as Hunter-Reay champ
Any questions that IndyCar has found a winning formula for running high-banked ovals disappeared tonight, as IndyCar put on a race that is an instant classic. Twenty nine lead changes, and perhaps a dozen more in the points championship, and a stunning display of the “agony of defeat and the thrill of victory.”
The race started pretty much the way we expected – a long green flag run where the back markers were quickly lapped. Simona de Silvestro was lapped after 11 laps, pulled off the track on lap 18 – and with that, probably the last of Lotus. Wade Cunningham and EJ Viso and Charlie Kimball were dispatched by lap 23, and JR Hildebrand was soon enjoying a 3.5 second lead.
After pitting, JR was back in the lead, followed by Ed Carpenter, Rubens Barrichello, Tony Kanaan, and Takuma Sato. Carpenter was no surprise – he had the fastest lap of the week, and he had come close to winning Indy, and indeed had won Kentucky at the end of last season. And on the restart, Ed grabbed the lead, leaving Sato and Rubens to battle for 3rd and 4th.
Meanwhile, Oriol Servia and EJ Viso had to serve drive though penalties. Normally, we wouldn’t worry too much about EJ doing a drive though, but EJ took the occasion to retire his car, citing mechanical issues, placing him in 24th. And with that, he set the stage for (depending on your point of view) either one of the most valiant efforts seen in IndyCar, or one of the cruelest teases by the racing gods.
Back in the pits, Team Penske figured out that if they could run just 13 more laps, they could pass Viso, and in so doing, for Hunter-Reay to finish 5th or higher to win the championship. And thrash they did – replacing bent parts, sending a somewhat surprised Will Powers to put his drivers suit back on.
Meanwhile, out on the track, race leader JR Hildebrand brushed the wall, turning a dominant drive into a spoiled evening. JR came out 5 laps down, but would make up 3 of those and finish 11th.
This turn of events led to an interesting strategy move (assuming it wasn’t simply a mistake) as James Jakes – who has told AR1 that he doesn’t like this kind of racing – assumed the lead under caution. That’s right – Jakes, leading at a high-banked oval. And unfortunately, Jakes probably had never restarted the field on an oval, and led them too slowly for the restart. The field bunched up behind him, and Katherine Legge – who had been running in the top 10 until a self-inflicted pit penalty – punted Texas winner (and Jakes teammate) Justin Wilson. Justin’s night was ended with a 23rd place finish. Katherine would soldier on, get another pit penalty, yet end up with a very solid 9th place finish.
On the restart on lap 85, Carpenter jumped into the lead, and a lap later, Hunter-Reay was in 4th, which at that time, was a couple of positions more than he needed for the points championship. And so the race went for a while, until lap 108, when Rubens blew his engine on lap 108.
At this point we should note that Rubens and Sato, being former F1 drivers, were supposed to be lost on the ovals. Rubens, however, turned in his strongest performance of the year before the engine started souring, and Sato was hanging around in the top 5 until the very end.
The race resumed, and one lap 123 Will Powers came back onto the track, some 69 laps down. Later it was revealed that his car’s cross weight was off by a considerable amount, the toe was whacked, yet he was fast enough to stay on the track for exactly 12 laps. And one more "insurance" lap a bit later, under caution, for good measure. Enough to make Hunter-Reay need a 5th place finish instead of 6th.
Pit stops around lap 155 left Tony Kanaan in the lead, enjoying one of his best runs of the year. Scott Dixon was in second, Helio Castroneves in third, Ed Carpenter in fourth, and Sato in fifth. But it soon became obvious that TK’s engine cover was loose and wouldn’t last the entire race in that condition. Fortunately for TK, Ryan Briscoe obligingly scraped the paint off of turn 4. TK fell back to seventh, where he plotted his return to the front.
The race continued on lap 189, with Scott Dixon and Ed Carpenter fighting for the lead, and Hunter-Reay watching the fight in sixth place, until Alex Tagliani lost his motor on lap 229 and tapped turn 4. Tagliani had one of his best runs of the year, but finished 20th.
Once again, the race resumed with Ed Carpenter in the lead. By this time Dario Franchitti – who had been running a patient race – was lurking, moving immediately into second past Sato and then into the lead by lap 237. Hunter-Reay moved to 3rd on lap 238, where he was when Tony Kanaan tagged the wall on lap 240.
Now, what followed will be debated for some time. No on can recall Indy Car Race Director Beaux Barfield telling people that IndyCar would do a Green-White-Checkered finish, but that's sort of what happened. Beaux stopped the race with a red flag with 8 laps remaining. Certainly, no one prepared the Andretti pits for that situation.
Five minutes later, the race was resumed, with the green flying on lap 244 with Dario in the lead, followed by Ed Carpenter, and Hunter-Reay in third. Marco Andretti - who had a disappointing night but still had a fast car -- immediately jumped the restart and put himself between Hunter-Reay and fourth place Sato. And when Sato reminded us that he crashed trying to win Indy by crashing trying to win this race, the thing was done -- Carpenter had just passed Dario for the lead, Scott Dixon was third, and Hunter-Reay was fourth. And fourth, as it turns out, was good enough for the championship for Hunter-Reay.
Hunter-Reay entered today's 500-mile race 17 points behind Power, who crashed early in the race and finished 24th.
It was Hunter-Reay's first career championship , as he extends his distinction of being the most successful active American driver in the IndyCar Series.
The 31-year old Ft. Lauderdale, Fla. resident recorded four IZOD IndyCar Series victories this season: Baltimore (2012/Andretti Autosport), Toronto (2012/Andretti Autosport), Iowa (2012/Andretti Autosport), Milwaukee (2012/Andretti Autosport), New Hampshire (2011/Andretti Autosport), Long Beach (2010/Andretti Autosport) and Watkins Glen (2008/Rahal Letterman Racing). He also has victories in the CART/Champ Car Series at Milwaukee and Surfer's Paradise.
Hunter-Reay has now been the top-finishing American driver in the IZOD IndyCar Series points for three seasons in a row. Hunter-Reay is the only driver to score victories in IZOD IndyCar, CART Champ Car, Grand-Am and the American Le Mans series.
POST RACE QUOTES:
RYAN HUNTER-REAY (No. 28 Team DHL/Sun Drop Citrus Soda Chevrolet, 2012 IZOD IndyCar Series Champion): "I have no idea (how I got won this championship). It was team effort right there. We were struggling all weekend. I didn't want to let anyone really know about it. We were really in the woods. This hasn't sunk in yet. I just drove 500 miles for my life. I can't believe we're INDYCAR champions. I can't even believe this. DHL, Sun Drop, Circle K, Chevrolet, the fans, INDYCAR. My dream has come true. This is unbelievable." (About the late race red flag): "I just wanted to get set in a rhythm because I knew when we got in a rhythm it was a little bit better. With the red flag, that really got the nerves going. Sitting in pit lane, I knew the tires would take in a heat cycle and that it would slide around a lot. Everybody raced tough, but they raced clean. My god. I didn't think we had it for the first half of the race and we kept getting it better and better and better. Michael (Andretti) did a great job on the radio and the guys did a great job in the pits. This hasn't sunk in yet." (About the Power incident): "I don't know how close it was. He was right next to me and I saw him lose it, so I bet it was pretty close. He was joking around that he would take me out if I was next to him and he almost did."
ED CARPENTER (No. 20 Fuzzy's Vodka/Ed Carpenter Racing Chevrolet, winner MAV TV 500): "This feels great for a brand new team that just started in November. I probably should have won Indy but I kind of messed up a little bit. We have been trying to win ovals all year and finally got it done tonight. A good way to end the year." (Passing Dario) "I got a good start, I thought that maybe that was going to be my last chance to get by him and then he just kept protecting the bottom and I started working the top where I would run all night through one and two and kept building momentum, and building momentum and finally got close enough to get a draft and get a run around him on the front stretch."
DARIO FRANCHITTI (No. 10 Target Chip Ganassi Racing Honda): "(On last lap) "Almost isn't quite good enough. Ed just got a big run, I don't know if he turned to wake up or what there but he got a big run around the outside and down there had been working for me all night and the middle of the corner started to push up and it was either take us both out or and wreck us both or take left and I took left and he got passed and out came the yellow. So that happens. He drove a great race though I can't take anything away from him. Want to thank the Target boys, think we did a good job getting up there. Ultimately the smallest amounts, but you win by those and you lose by those." (On RHR) "That was a surprise. Congratulations to the Andretti guys. Good friends of mine. I'm happy to see them do that. Well done to Ryan, he drove a great race. I just wish I could have hung on there for a couple of seconds and won this race."
GRAHAM RAHAL (No. 38 Service Central Honda): "Overall, it was a really good day for the team and I'm really pleased. The Service Central Chip Ganassi Racing team did a superb job. We stuck with it. There were times where we were good and there were times where we were bad. At the end of the day we stuck with the fight and we worked hard. We had a really good effort tonight."
RUBENS BARRICHELLO (No. 8 BMC | Embrase - KV Racing Technology Chevrolet): "I enjoyed myself a lot out there. I had a good car at the beginning and it was all going really well, but unfortunately it ended literally in fumes. I enjoyed being back on ovals and at Fontana. I need to thank my crew for their hard work this year a look forward to next year."
CHARLIE KIMBALL (No. 83 NovoLog FlexPen Honda): "It's nice to finish out 2012 with a top-10 for the whole Novo Nordisk Chip Ganassi Racing crew. They deserved better than that tonight. We had a much better car but I made a mistake in the pits and it took me too long to figure it out early in the race but I know that the No. 83 NovoLog FlexPen car is going to come back stronger next year. We got this figured out. We're ready to go figure out the rest of our short-comings. We'll be stronger next year, and more importantly, faster."
E .J. VISO (No. 5 CITGO | PDVSA - KV Racing Technology Chevrolet): "This was one of the most frustrating weekends of my career. Starting with testing on Wednesday I had a car that was extremely difficult to drive because it lacked grip. I believed at the time it was because the track was very slick especially with the downforce levels we were running. Today I had the same feeling in the car, but I was really looking forward to the last race of the season. I was focused and I thought we had a chance to make it into the top-six. However, in the race I had to stop because I was lacking both front and rear grip. We aren't sure what caused it, but we definitely need to investigate that."
WADE CUNNINGHAM: (No. 14 ABC Supply/A.J. Foyt Racing Honda): "I knew we were facing an uphill battle coming in. If anyone told us we'd have to battle through a crunched car, four laps down and come back to finish 14th, well I think everyone on the ABC Supply team can hold their heads high. We had good pit stops- never lost positions relatively, everyone hit their marks and the ABC car rolls back into the trailer after 500 long miles, so there's a lot of satisfaction for me."
SIMON PAGENAUD (No. 77 Schmidt Hamilton HP Motorsports): "It was a long race, for sure. At some point, I asked where we were in the lap count and Rob (Edwards, SSM team manager) told me not even half-way, and I thought 'ooh, that's a long race, longer than a stint in the 24 Hours of Le Mans.' It was a good race for us though. As soon as the sun went down, the car was really dialed in. It was super fast with a really good set-up. I never had any surprises. We definitely had a shot at a top-five position. We were that strong, but unfortunately we had some heat issues. The car was close to overheating because we collected some debris in the radiator, and it cost us a lot of laps in the pits."
JOSEF NEWGARDEN (No. 67 Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing Honda): "I think this race pretty much sums up our season. It's been a tough year. Tonight we really couldn't find the consistency or the brakes. I think for the off season we'll look to apply everything we learned here and come out swinging in 2013. It was good that we ran the whole race after the problem we had. It's better than not running it and it's great experience. I thought the race was great. I really enjoyed it. The low downforce was very tricky. I would have liked to have been a part of the front group. It was a shame that we had a problem and were out of the mix early on."
HELIO CASTRONEVES (No. 3 Auto Club Team Penske Chevrolet): "We had a good start. Certainly conservative. Car was good enough to keep going, unfortunately we kept having some vibration and that’s what keeps stopping us moving forward. At the end of the day it was a hell of a restart. New tires, trying to pass everybody. But unfortunately we needed one more lap or actually that yellow did not need to happen. But I thought it was a great race. I though the crowd had a good race. I am upset about the championship for Team Penske and well focus on dancing now."
WILL POWER (No. 12 Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet): "There were definitely times there where it was looking hopeful. All credit to my guys, getting the car out and doing those 12 laps to get a couple of points. At the end of the day, Hunter-Reay is definitely a deserving champion. A real fighter. Probably as far as all around drivers go, he's probably the best in the series because he wins in each discipline. If I look back on the season, once again the ovals - three crashes on three of the ovals this year, that's a massive hit in the points. Three years winning the road course championship, quite convincingly, so it's very obvious where I lack."
ALEX TAGLIANI (No. 98 Barracuda Racing Honda): "I think we were the car to beat at the end," he said. "I won't lie, it's disappointing, but I would race with Honda any given day. I'm very thankful that they allowed us back into their group. I'm a Honda driver and I want to race with them for a long time. These are things that happen. It's racing, it's mechanical and it's out of our control. Overall, I'm very pleased with the team and the way that everybody performed during the season. It's a hell of a job that the Barracuda Racing crew did. It's a shame because where we were heading at the finish would've probably put us in the top 10 in championship points, but it was an amazing comeback. I'm proud of the way that we finished the season, showing how strong we are. We had our share of bad luck and this was another one. But next year is going to be a totally different situation. Next year is going to be our year."
MARCO ANDRETTI (No. 26 Team RC Cola Chevrolet): "It's a good thing we were prepared for war tonight. That's what we had. It was just fight, fight, fight. We were fast, but we had some clutch issues that caused us to stall a couple of times in the pits, so we would drop back and then have to claw our way back up there. I wish we could have had a better result after starting on the pole, but we tried our hardest. Congratulations to Ryan (Hunter-Reay) on the championship, they deserve it, and the whole Andretti Autosport team worked really well together this year, and winning the championship is a great reward for everyone in the company."
JAMES HINCHCLIFFE (No. 27 GoDaddy.com Chevrolet): "This is one of those times when we're all hoping that we get back to the shop and find that something was broken on the car. We had such a strong first stint, we moved up to seventh, and the guys were great in the pits and then it just fell off the wagon. As soon as the sun went down, I'm not sure if it was just the set-up or a problem, but either way a very tough day for the Go Daddy guys. They deserve better than that. I really wanted the season to end on a high note, so for us it's a bittersweet day. With Ryan taking the championship, it's huge for the team, and big congrats to him and everybody on the team for working so hard all year. We're thrilled for him."
MICHAEL ANDRETTI (Owner, Andretti Autosport): "This is an incredible day. It wasn't going so good right at the start there - we were struggling a little bit - and then we saw Will (Power) have his unfortunate accident and we knew it was open from there. We needed to get the job done and it was a lot of hard work. Ryan did a helluva job, and the whole team did - getting the car better and better throughout the race. We had enough there at the end to get it done. I'm just so proud of everybody here with the DHL/Sun Drop team…. There's a lot more to come. This team is still getting better and better and I think we're going to be even stronger next year."
RYAN BRISCOE (No. 2 IZOD Team Penske Chevrolet): "It was a disappointing result, the No.2 IZOD car was running really well at the start of the race. But at the end of the second stint there with Will's crash in turn two we ran over his wing and I think it might have damaged our diffuser and we just struggled from then on throughout the night. I'm just proud of the guys, they did what they needed to do and it just didn't go our way tonight."
SCOTT DIXON (No. 9 Target Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet): "It was a good night. Our car was good, especially that start in the middle was fairly strong, but we faded a little bit towards the end there and once we hit traffic it wasn't as good as what I had been. We worked hard at it, I got a little loose towards the end there. Congrats to Ed, he had a hell of a race the whole night, and Hunter-Reay keeping his head screwed on and taking the championship. It was getting pretty close on points there towards the end, but he did it. I feel for Will, he definitely dominated the season, but that's really tough to take. We're excited for next year, the Target cars will be back strong. Hopefully we can win a championship."
JR HILDEBRAND (No. 4 National Guard Panther Racing Chevrolet): "Obviously we got off to a killer start and the National Guard Chevy was really good those first couple stints. On the restart I was running high and had to pedal it while Ed (Carpenter) stayed flat and drove straight through. I felt like I had the pace to get back by him, but just by the nature of the two lines we were running I was getting a lot of dirty air on the exit of the corners. I knew that if I could keep the pressure on him I could get back by, I could see that he was struggling a little bit, but I was the one that ended up getting caught out. Massively frustrating deal. I felt we had a car that was going to finish in the Top Five and I felt like we had a shot at winning this deal. I'm super frustrated for the team, cause we definitely rolled the dice with a couple things for this race and we had a chance to run up front all day. Once I got stuck a little further back, the car was still good in traffic, but then everybody else moved up on that top line. We got a couple of our laps back, but obviously not enough to get back on the lead lap there by the end."
SEBASTIAN SAAVEDRA (No. 17 Team AFS Chevrolet): "I had a blast, to be honest, and I think we need to focus on the positive side of this race. It was an unfortunate situation where the tire temperatures just took us out. We were doing an amazing race. We had a top-five car, but you know at the end I'm very happy to race with my teammates up-front there. And for (Ryan) Hunter-Reay, to be a part of team that wins the championship, to be a part of that process, and just so proud of them and big congrats to Hunter-Reay. This is the beginning of something big. We'll keep focused for next year and bring that No. 17 car back."
KATHERINE LEGGE (No. 6 TrueCar Dragon Racing Chevrolet): "The team did an awesome job, I had one of the fastest cars out there. It was my lack of experience, and my mistakes in the pits that cost us a top-six, top-eight. It really could have been very good, but I made three big mistakes. But to get ninth, we'll take that to move on to next year. 500 miles doesn't seem that much longer. You get in the zone, and get focused. When the red flag and you come in and start to heat up, that is when it is like 'oh, I still have eight laps to go'. It kind of sinks in. It was fun."
ORIOL SERVIA (NO. 22 Panther/Dreyer & Reinbold Racing Chevrolet): "At the end…we struggled a little bit with the car at the beginning of the weekend. But in the race, I really liked my car. But we had something strange happen, we were having all this debris getting the radiator. We didn't want to blow our beautiful engine, so we had to keep stopping because it was getting over heated. Our race was over then. We had to stop every 10-15 laps to clean the radiator. Strange. We had a couple of strange things this year. Filter, fuel and things that usually don't happen. A few more DNFs than we want. We had a great season, especially since we got the Chevy power behind us, definitely. Good season. We want much more, but we had some strong runs. Hopefully we can come back next year stronger."
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