Ryan Hunter-Reay went through a lifetime of stressful moments Saturday night but when the checkered flag waved, he had amassed three more points than his rival Will Power to win the 2012 IndyCar championship.
The Andretti Autosport driver battled an ill-handling car all night, and when he absolutely needed to hold off the competition he found a way. In the end, the bad luck which had haunted him all season—blown engines and getting punted by other drivers—finally turned around.
Hunter-Reay, no stranger to victory (he had four wins this season) was overwhelmed by winning the championship. “Man, did we do what we had to do! I cannot believe this. It hasn’t sunk in,” he told NBC Sports immediately after the race.
“We just raced 500 miles but we got the championship for Andretti Autosport, DHL, Sun Drop, Circle K, Chevrolet … Man, this is a dream come true.
“We struggled with set-up, but we put it all together, and we went out there and performed and brought it home when we needed to. We’ve won the championship by one point, and man, did we have to fight for it.”
Hunter Reay needed to finish no worse than fifth in the MAVTV 500 to win the championship. He started 22nd and fought his way through the field, but his car was bad and kept getting worse—so bad he suspected a broken shock absorber, a repair too complicated to make in the middle of a race. Hunter-Reay had to compensate by driving harder.
Lap 56 saw Hunter-Reay racing side-by-side with Penske’s Will Power. Power lost control entering Turn Two and spun up the track, missing Hunter-Reay by inches. Even with his rival out of the race, RHR still needed a sixth-place to make up the 17-point deficit, but that was two strokes of good luck—Power wrecking and also not hitting Hunter-Reay.
The 32-year-old Floridian fought to stay near the front, running seventh of eighth but never joining the fast guys up front. JR Hildebrand, Tony Kanaan, Alex Tagliani, Ed Carpenter, Dario Franchitti and Scott Dixon had the good cars at this race, RHR struggled to make up the positions he needed but without avail.
To make matters worse, Will Power’s crew pulled off a phenomenal feat—they patched together power’s spare car and his wrecked race car to make a rolling chassis, which Power took out to run just enough laps to move up one place in the overall standings, running one more lap than E.J. Viso who had retired. This meant Hunter-Reay needed to finish one spot better—fifth instead of sixth—to win the title.
RHR didn’t quit. He pushed his crippled car to its limit, even gaining a few places, while in front of him, others got hit with bad luck. Power’s teammate Ryan Briscoe, fast all night, hit the wall, moving RHR a spot closer to the front. Alex Tagliani, who knocked Hunter-Reay off the course at Sonoma, costing the AA driver a lot of desperately needed points, blew his motor while leading the race.
With nine laps to go, Tony Kanaan, fast and very motivated, battling Hunter-Reay for the oval-racing trophy, slipped up and hit the wall, bringing out a yellow flag. Finally it seemed Ryan Hunter-Reay had some luck—by the time the safety crew cleaned up the mess, there would only be a lap or two left in the race. RHR was almost home.
Instead race director Beaux Barfield controversially called a red flag—race stoppage. This rule can be used late in a race to give fans a racing finish. In this case it also gave all of RHR’s foes another chance to pass him.
Hunter-Reay managed to hold off his better-handling competitors on the restart. He even gained a place or two racing with the notoriously dangerous Takuma Sato. Sato is known to push right to the edge and even a bit past it in search of his first win (as at this year’s Indy500.)Hunter-Reay went wheel-to-wheel with Sato, passed him a few times but couldn’t hold him off ultimately, dropping to fifth. That might have been good enough, except that Helio Castroneves, who had gambled and pitted for tires just before the restart, was now roaring towards the front in the fastest car on the track.
With one lap left, Castroneves was right on Hunter-Reay’s wing and looking for a way by. There seemed to be no way for Hunter-Reay, on old tires in an ill-handling car, to protect his position.
Luck swung back in RHR’s direction: Takuma Sato, striving to catch race leaders Ed Carpenter and Dario Franchitti, pushed too hard and smacked the wall, bringing out a field-freezing caution flag with half a lap left in the race.
Ed Carpenter pushed past Franchitti just before the yellow flag flew, winning the race, while Ryan Hunter-Reay cruised across the finish line a champion.
but with a lap left Helio Castroneves came flying towards the front on fresh tires; there seemed no way for RHR to defend his position and save his points lead.
Halfway through the lap, Takuma Sato in fourth spun and hit the wall, bringing out a yellow flag and freezing the field. Hunter-Reay finished fourth and took the title.