Ryan Hunter-Reay made a decision to race smart at the start of the season with a clear focus on the big picture.
It's worked through the first four races, and Hunter-Reay is off to his best start ever in the IndyCar Series. His reward? He'll ride his momentum into Indianapolis Motor Speedway, where he can apply a new approach to the biggest of the race of the season.
"I just love the place, I have such a massive amount of respect for Indy," Hunter-Reay said. "The No. 1 thing I want to do this year is have fun and really enjoy the place — as opposed to last year, when it was white knuckle the whole time, and running slow."
Last year was an Indianapolis 500 disaster for both Hunter-Reay and the entire Andretti Autosport organization. It was clear immediately the Andretti cars were off, and none of the changes applied made any improvement. The team had five cars entered, and Hunter-Reay sensed what was coming.
"I remember saying, 'If we don't make major improvements, we're going to wind up in a cannibalism situation, just eating each other,'" he said.
He was right. John Andretti, in a one-off ride, was the only Andretti car to qualify in the first round. It sent the four full-time drivers into Bump Day all vying for one of nine available spots in the field.
Hunter-Reay had been in that position before, in 2009, when he began his final qualifying attempt moments before the gun went off to signal the round over. His attempt counted, and he was the final driver to qualify when he bumped Alex Tagliani from the field in what he called "horrendous drama."
He was back in that position on Bump Day last year, and it didn't work in his favor: Marco Andretti and Danica Patrick made the race, but Hunter-Reay and Mike Conway did not as the four teammates battled each other for spots in the field. Strategy called for Hunter-Reay to again wait until the closing moments of the session to make his final attempt, but this time he didn't beat the gun.
Hunter-Reay had sponsor appearances the next day in Dallas, which he painfully fulfilled while having to explain to anyone who asked why he wasn't in the Indy 500. Hours later, he learned Andretti had bought out an A.J. Foyt ride, essentially paying Hunter-Reay's way into the race.
"Last year was the most stressful month of my life, really something I don't want to repeat again," he said. "I can't even explain the stress level and how much it consumes you, just how much is riding on it all. It was unfortunate. But we learned a lot, and it really gave us a kick in the pants."
That was evident as the Andretti oval program improved over the season, and Hunter-Reay picked up his only win of the season three months later at New Hampshire. But he improved from 23rd in the standings to seventh by the time the season ended, and the 31-year-old American vowed to race differently in 2012.
This year is about both Indianapolis, and staying in contention for the season title.
It forced him to be conservative in the season-opener at St. Petersburg, where saving fuel prevented him from making a run at the leaders and settling for a third-place finish. He was 12th at Barber, but rebounded at Long Beach, where he crossed the line in third before IndyCar penalized him 30 seconds for spinning Takuma Sato on the final lap. It dropped him to a sixth-place finish.
Last week in Brazil, he challenged Will Power over the final third of the race and had one shot on the final restart to try to take the lead. He played it safe, though, and when the opening wasn't there, Hunter-Reay didn't force the issue and took the second-place finish.
Now, here he is, ranked fourth in the standings and one of only three drivers in the series to complete every lap this season. He's also made it to the Fast Six round of qualifying in three of the four races.
"It's certainly been a focus of the entire team to be extremely consistent and look to the big picture, which is the championship," Hunter-Reay said. "There's never been a year where we've been knocking on the door as much as we have been."
Across the board, Andretti is running far better at this stage of the season than the team was last year.
James Hinchcliffe, hired in December to replace Patrick, has qualified and finished in the top six in each race so far and is third in the standings. Marco Andretti hasn't broken through yet, but his 25th-place finish after crashing with Graham Rahal at Long Beach is his worst result of the season.
Team owner Michael Andretti believes it's the strongest his organization has been in years — maybe all the way back to 2005, when Dan Wheldon won the championship and teamed with Tony Kanaan, Dario Franchitti and Bryan Herta to give Andretti wins in 11 of the 17 races. Wheldon, Kanaan and Franchitti finished first, second and fourth in the standings.
"This group does remind us of our glory guys when we had the four guys back in '05, you could not have had a better scenario than what we had then," Andretti said. "But I guess you could say we are pretty close to it now. It's probably not 100 percent the same, but it's as good as we could ever expect."
So much so, that Andretti thinks he's got three championship contenders and the best team chemistry he's had since that 2005 season.
Hunter-Reay thinks it's because all three drivers get along and are working together toward the same goal.
"As a team, the whole organization seems to be on the same page and moving forward in a cooperative effort," he said. "In the past, it felt like it was more individual teams under one roof. But now, while we still have a lot to improve, we've got a great atmosphere and a great teammate relationship. I've been hands-on since the beginning with the car, and I feel like I know what we need to do, and there's been a lot of effort put forth on ovals, especially Indy.
"The amount of work that's gone into this, and with Chevrolet power, I just feel so confident that we've got a great shot."