On Labor Day weekend, the 31-year-old Floridian had to work exceptionally hard for his fourth IZOD IndyCar Series victory of the season after starting 10th in the 75-lap Grand Prix of Baltimore on a 2.04-mile temporary street circuit that invited calamity at all 13 of its turns.
Somehow he avoided the pitfalls – there were nine full-course cautions – and any pratfalls in the No. 28 Team DHL/Sun Drop Citrus Soda car during a period when sections of the course glistened from a brief shower to not only take the checkered flag in the penultimate race of the season but rise back into serious championship contention.
There's a 17-point deficit to make up on front-runner Will Power in the MAV TV 500 INDYCAR World Championships at Auto Club Speedway on Sept. 15. Doable, yes, but like the Baltimore race it won't be easy.
It is the seventh consecutive year that the championship will be decided in the season finale.
Power, the championship runner-up the past two years to Dario Franchitti, clinches his first series title if he finishes first or second in the 200-lap race under the lights on the 2-mile oval. Beyond that scenario is a myriad of possibilities, including a tiebreaker coming into play ala 2006. Hunter-Reay's most direct route to the title is to win and sweep the three bonus points (1 for pole, 2 for most laps led) while Power finishes fourth or lower.
"We have a 17â€'point lead and it's going to be interesting, a 500â€'mile race," said Power, who started from the pole and placed sixth in the No. 12 Verizon Team Penske car at Baltimore. "Maybe it will be the first last race that I finish because every year I get crashed out. So I'm determined this time to just finish the last race and finish it as the leader of the championship."
Power led Franchitti by 11 points entering the 2011 finale. He started the race on the 1.5-mile Kentucky Speedway oval from the pole but finished 19th after contact and, combined with Franchitti's runner-up race finish, wound up 18 points back. In the 2010 finale at the Homestead-Miami Speedway, Power crashed with 57 laps left and fell short by a meager five points.
"We both understand the bad luck thing," Power said of his rival. "It can be so cruel, but that is racing. The guy who has the least amount of those sort of days wins the championship. You can be as upset as you want at the time and say it not fair and bad luck and all this, but at the end of the day it kind of all works itself out."
Hunter-Reay has four Indy car oval victories, including two this year (Milwaukee and Iowa). Power's lone oval victory came in 2011 on the 1.5-mile Texas Motor Speedway. Both test at the track they've never competed on (Power will be at Auto Club Speedway Sept. 6 and 12 and Hunter-Reay on Sept. 12).
Hunter-Reay also is a finalist in a championship subset as he's tied with Tony Kanaan for the lead in the A.J. Foyt Trophy for most points scored on ovals.
"The championship was on the line (at Baltimore) and that's really the only thing I'm fixated on winning," Hunter-Reay said. "This is all I've worked for my entire life. I haven't been nervous at all or anything. I've just been enjoying it and driving 110 percent and really getting along with the cars and feel like I'm in rhythm with the car. Hopefully, we'll have that at Fontana, too."
A LOOK BACK:
For the 13th time in the last 17 years – and the seventh season in a row — the IZOD IndyCar Series driver championship will be decided in the final event. A look at the past five equally dramatic seasons:
Who: Dario Franchitti and Will Power
Where: Kentucky Speedway (Oct. 2)
The storyline: Franchitti rallies past Power again
After Dario Franchitti collected career victory No. 30 on the Streets of Toronto, he found himself 55 points ahead of Verizon Team Penske driver Will Power.
Four races later, after a DNF by contact in New Hampshire and a few finishes behind Power, Franchitti was leading by only five points.
Power took over at Twin Ring Motegi when he finished second to Franchitti's fifth. But Franchitti answered back in Kentucky with a second-place finish to Ed Carpenter, which coupled with Power's pit stop woes, was enough to reclaim the lead and his fourth series title in five seasons.
What Franchitti said: "The ups and downs … the way the season ebbs and flows, I think one thing I've learned is to keep a very open mind," Franchitti said. "There's not been a point in any of these championships where I thought, 'Yeah, we've got this,' or on the other side where, 'We're out of this thing.' I've just kept an open mind and tried to each week, each moment in the car just get the most you can, make that next pass, make that next move.
"That's kind of the way I've dealt with things, trying to keep it balanced, not to get too crazy excited when we had a big points lead or get too desperate and upset when that lead eroded or we were behind. That seems to have worked very well.
"One of the reasons I can do that, I have so much faith in every single person that works for Team Target."
Who: Dario Franchitti and Will Power
Where: Homestead-Miami Speedway (Oct. 2)
The storyline: Franchitti completes rally with second straight championship
Franchitti didn't win his first series championship until 2007. Now, three years later, he is a three-time title winner at age 37 and is certainly not showing any signs of slowing down.
By looking at the cumulative of the success he has enjoyed since 2007, Franchitti acknowledges he is amazed.
Even when he was 59 points behind Power with four races remaining, Franchitti remained confident that he could contend for the championship.
The impact of those results didn't fully hit Franchitti until the off-season when he had a chance to reflect on his accomplishments.
What Franchitti said: "It's very difficult to kind of compare the three. That's like asking to compare the two Indianapolis 500 wins. I do believe the competition level in the series is going up. For whatever reason, we at Team Target, both Scott (Dixon), and myself, maybe didn't have the speed advantage we had last year. In some cases we have to work harder to finish in the top five at races.
"So to come away with a championship after a season like that is very satisfying. And we look back to Iowa and think to that gear box, that took a lot of points away, and from then on it was a real struggle. But nobody on the Target team gave up. We did our best every single week. It was pretty cool. Great to be out there enjoying that feeling and that moment with my family, my friends, my teammates. It doesn't get any better than that."
Who: Dario Franchitti, Ryan Briscoe, Scott Dixon
Where: Homestead-Miami Speedway (Oct. 10)
The storyline: Who would have thought there wouldn't be a yellow?
The championship battle was heated throughout the season, with the lead in the standings being swapped 15 times over the 17 races. Dixon led entering the finale by five points over Franchitti, his Target Chip Ganassi Racing teammate, and by eight over Team Penske's Briscoe.
In the Firestone Indy 300, Dixon and Briscoe dueled at the front, both seeking to pick up the critical two bonus points for leading the most laps after Franchitti earned the one bonus point for starting from the pole. "It's pretty much whoever beats who is going to walk away with the championship," Dixon said before the race.
What the contenders didn't figure on was that the race would be caution-free for the first time in series history. No crashes, no debris. Not even a sandwich wrapper brought out a yellow flag. So, while Dixon and Briscoe were racing each other, Franchitti was on a fuel-conservation strategy.
It proved effective when both Dixon and Briscoe had to pit for a splash of ethanol – their fourth stops of the day — in the final 10 laps. Franchitti coaxed the No. 10 Target Chip Ganassi Racing car to the finish line on three stops for fuel. For the plan to work, he needed everything to go right. It did.
Franchitti won the race and title by 11 points over Dixon.
What Franchitti said: "It was physically very difficult with no yellows. Our strategy, after the halfway point, it wouldn't have mattered if there were no yellows or not. We were always, from Lap 100 on, in a very good position."
Who: Scott Dixon, Helio Castroneves
Where: Chicagoland Speedway (Sept. 7)
The storyline: Castroneves never gives up
With three races remaining, Dixon appeared to already have his name on the championship trophy. He had earned his long-awaited first Indianapolis 500 victory in May, and he had a 78-point lead over Castroneves in the standings after winning the Meijer Indy 300 on Aug. 9 at Kentucky Speedway. It was his third consecutive victory and record-tying sixth win of the season.
But Castroneves and Team Penske never quit. Castroneves won the next race, the PEAK Antifreeze and Motor Oil Grand Prix of Sonoma County on Aug. 24 at Infineon Raceway, while Dixon finished 12th. That 78-point lead suddenly was sliced to 43.
Castroneves then finished a controversial second a week later in the Detroit Indy Grand Prix. Race officials ordered him to surrender the lead to Justin Wilson late in the race for a blocking violation. Still, Castroneves whittled Dixon's lead to 30 points after Dixon finished fifth.
Next was the season-ending PEAK Antifreeze and Motor Oil 300 at Chicagoland Speedway, the third consecutive year the season championship was coming down to 200 laps on the 1.5-mile oval.
Dixon entered the finale needing to finish eighth or better to clinch. Castroneves didn't help himself during qualifying when his four-lap run of 215.372 – good for fourth on the starting grid – was disqualified because he drove under the white line inside the track multiple times, a rules violation. Castroneves was forced to start 27th, while Dixon started second in his Target Chip Ganassi Racing entry.
Castroneves charged to the lead by Lap 78 of the 200-lap race. Dixon had dropped to 10th in the middle section of the race, and the impossible started looking possible for Castroneves. But Dixon charged forward and regained the lead on Lap 186. Dixon and Castroneves were running 1-2, respectively, on the final restart of the race on Lap 194. Castroneves hung on Dixon's rear wing at the white flag, as just .0102 of a second separated them entering the final lap.
The two cars were wheel-to-wheel, screaming down the frontstretch to the finish, with the checkered flag in the air. Castroneves won the race by 12 1/8 inches – a time margin of .0033 of a second – in a finish that needed a five-minute study of timing photographs to determine a winner.
It was the second-closest finish in series history. But it wasn't enough to wrest the title from Dixon, who earned his second championship by 17 points.
What Dixon said: "It was pretty crazy. At one part of the race near the mid-point, I had slipped back to 12th or 13th. It was definitely one we were fighting for to the end. We thought we had won the race and we were in Victory Lane, and then they take the hats off you and Helio's won. We still won the championship, and that's the one we wanted."
Who: Dario Franchitti, Scott Dixon
Where: Chicagoland Speedway (Sept. 9)
The storyline: Title comes down to last lap of final race
Franchitti was in control after nine of 17 races, with three victories, including the Indianapolis 500. Franchitti held a 65-point lead – more than a one-race gap – over Dixon after winning the SunTrust Indy Challenge on June 30 at Richmond International Raceway.
It appeared Franchitti was on cruise control for his first championship after 12 years at the top level of North American open-wheel racing. But Dixon had other ideas. He won four of the next seven races after Richmond.
Dixon won the Motorola Indy 300 on Aug. 26 at Infineon Raceway to finally catch and replace Franchitti atop the standings, holding a four-point edge. Franchitti regained the top spot by three points by finishing sixth in the penultimate race of the season, the Detroit Indy Grand Prix on Sept. 2. Dixon finished eighth after spinning while battling for the lead late in the race and nearly taking out his championship rival while his stalled car blocked the track.
The final chapter in this thrilling season was set for the PEAK Antifreeze Indy 300 at Chicagoland Speedway. Sixteen previous races featuring 2,733 laps of competition had come down to one 200-lap duel between Franchitti and Dixon.
Franchitti won the pole in his Andretti Green Racing machine but lost the lead at the green flag. Meanwhile, Dixon had moved up after starting sixth and led 32 laps between Laps 135-190.
Dixon lost the lead to his teammate, Dan Wheldon, on Lap 191 but regained it on Lap 194 when Wheldon slowed on the backstretch. Franchitti's teammate, Danica Patrick, then spun entering pit road on the same lap, triggering the third and final caution period of the race.
In a moment of nearly perfect drama, Dixon and Franchitti lined up one-two on the restart at the end of Lap 197 as the only cars on the lead lap. Franchitti, who had worked the entire race to save fuel, then moved to the high groove to size up Dixon on Lap 198 but could not pass.
Dixon led Franchitti by .0600 of a second at the white flag and needed to stay out front for just 1.5 more miles to claim his second title. Then it happened in Turn 3 – one of the most unexpected moments in series history.
Dixon's car sputtered, running out of fuel. Franchitti roared past for the race victory and his first North American major series championship. Dixon coasted to the line in second, his Honda engine thirsting for just one half-gallon more of ethanol.
The final margin was 13 points.
What Franchitti said: "It was a pretty stressful time. We'd lost some points at Sonoma, and it was going to come down to whoever won the last race between Scott and I. It was Chicago, which was not one of my favorite tracks at the time. I had had some good results there, but I knew I had to win if I was to have a shot. It was all on the line. We were on the pole and the car was very fast, but I went off at the start of the race and the speed wasn't there. The two Target cars and the two Penske cars passed me, and I knew I didn't have the speed on my own to win the race. I had to use the one weapon I owned, and that was fuel-saving. All day, I saved fuel and I saved fuel.
"The last restart, I made a run for it and tried to go to the outside, but I didn't have enough to get it done. I was sizing him up trying to get a draft on the backstretch on that last lap to see what I could make happen. Just when I was thinking about making a move on him, he ran out of fuel. It was incredible. All those laps for the whole year, it came down to the last lap. The last corner."
Who: Sam Hornish Jr., Dan Wheldon, Helio Castroneves, Scott Dixon
Where: Chicagoland Speedway (Sept. 10)
The storyline: Four-man, two-team showdown
Castroneves led Team Penske teammate Hornish Jr. by one point in the standings after the second-to-last race of the season, the Indy Grand Prix of Sonoma on Aug. 27 at Infineon Raceway. Target Chip Ganassi Racing teammates Wheldon and Dixon were third and fourth, respectively, at 422 and 420 points. That set up a four-man, two-team showdown for the championship in the season-ending PEAK Antifreeze 300 at Chicagoland Speedway.
Hornish won the Indianapolis 500 in May, but two of his other three victories during the summer came on 1.5-mile ovals like Chicagoland, which was a good omen as he attempted to become the first driver to win three IndyCar Series championships. But Castroneves also had enjoyed success on 1.5-milers, winning at Twin Ring Motegi and Texas among his four wins entering the finale.
So it appeared Team Penske was in good shape for its first IndyCar Series season title since joining the series full time in 2002. Wheldon, however, nearly stole the show in his first season with Ganassi after winning the title in 2005 with Andretti Green Racing.
Wheldon dominated at Chicagoland, leading 166 of 200 laps to edge Dixon by .1897 of a second for the victory. Hornish repressed his instincts to duel with Wheldon and Dixon for victory – reminded on the radio of the championship math of only needing to finish third by team owner Roger Penske – and followed orders precisely, finishing third. Castroneves rallied from an early pit road speed limit penalty to finish fourth, as the title contenders occupied the top four spots in the race. But it wasn't enough for Castroneves.
Hornish and Wheldon finished the season tied at 475 points, but Hornish claimed his record third title on the tie-breaker of four victories to Wheldon's two. Castroneves was third, an agonizing two points short at 473. Dixon was fourth at 460.
What Hornish said: "I wanted to win the race. But I also had to be smart about it. We didn't want something to happen and lose the championship. We knew that Dan could lead all the laps and win the race, and as long as I finished third. Emotionally, you're happy because you won the championship, but you wanted to win the race, too."