BIRMINGHAM, Ala. – For many different reasons, Ryan Hunter-Reay didn't receive the proper accolades for winning last year's IndyCar championship.
The spotlight didn't shine nearly as bright as it should have on Hunter-Reay, who in overtaking Will Power down the stretch became the first American in six years to win the title. His accomplishment was overshadowed by the firing of CEO Randy Bernard, the politics of open-wheel racing and a leaderless series that sank into a long offseason slumber.
Was he lost in the shuffle and a little bit neglected? Without a doubt.
But with his run on Sunday, Hunter-Reay showed he's going to make it difficult for anyone to overlook him this season. He bounced back from a disappointing season-opening race at St. Pete to win at Barber Motorsports Park, one of his worst tracks.
He had to work for the victory, too.
Hunter-Reay set up his run to Victory Lane on Saturday with a last-gasp, pole-winning run in qualifying that put him up front and ahead of a chaotic traffic jam at the start of Sunday's race. As drivers jockeyed for position in clogged up lanes, Hunter-Reay sailed away clean without a scratch on his Andretti Autosport Chevrolet.
He had a tough battle mid-race with Power and Helio Castroneves, the Penske Racing drivers who came into Barber as the only pole and race winners in IndyCar's three previous visits to the picturesque permanent road course. Hunter-Reay was chasing down Power with Castroneves closing quickly behind him. He made a slight mistake when he misjudged Castroneves' move while battling him for position, leading to contact between the two cars. Hunter-Reay escaped with just a tire mark on his right sidepod — a cosmetic scar instead of a far more catastrophic outcome.
Hunter-Reay didn't flinch then, and he didn't when Scott Dixon was trying to chase him down in the closing laps.
"Champions do not give up the lead, they win the race," Hunter-Reay said. "When you have a car capable of winning, you don't give that opportunity up because they don't come very often. Champions don't give up the lead when they're in it — they seize the moment and make the most of it."
The moment is definitely in front of Hunter-Reay for the taking.
His Andretti Autosport organization has used wins in the first two races of the season to prove last year was no fluke. James Hinchcliffe won in St. Pete and Marco Andretti was third to give the team two spots on the podium. But Hunter-Reay struggled there, and a mechanical issue ruined his day and led to an 18th-place finish.
It could have been a steep hole as the series shifted to Barber, where he'd never had success and his best career finish was 12th. But Barber was on Hunter-Reay's list of tracks to work on during the offseason, and the extra effort paid off with the pole and his 10th career win.
"It's great to be in Victory Lane, showing that last year we were for real," Hunter-Reay said. "This was one of our weakest tracks, to be on pole and win, I hope it's a sign of things to come. It's amazing when I think about it how different the weekend could be; let's say I didn't put that lap in qualifying in the end, you start second or third, the whole weekend is changed."
So the team is good, the driver is executing and rivals know he can't be counted out at any time. Now comes the business of getting him the respect he deserves, and that's not the easiest task for an IndyCar driver.
Hunter-Reay made it clear in an early meeting with Mark Miles, the new head of IndyCar owner Hulman & Co., that he's ready, willing and able to be an ambassador for the beleaguered series. He'll do whatever he can to help promote and market the series, which has difficulty building stars.
Winning is certainly half the battle. Collect enough trophies and people can't help but take notice. But IndyCar is overshadowed by NASCAR in the U.S., Formula One worldwide and its drivers are up against a crowded field in their quest to become household names.
And it just may be that Hunter-Reay is plagued by many of the same awful ailments of another champion who didn't always connect with fans.
Hunter-Reay is nice, he's polite, well-spoken and a workman at the race track. He's professional, doesn't throw tantrums, doesn't make waves. When you mix it all together, you've got "vanilla," the same dirty word that has been bestowed on five-time NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson.
The poorly kept secret about Johnson was that he was very far from boring, and that away from the track he can party with the best of the bad boys. It wasn't until he started collecting championship trophies that Johnson loosened up a little.
He still isn't controversial, but he uses his voice, offers his opinion, gives inside peeks into his personal life and sometimes even shows his playful side. Bottom line? He doesn't care so much about maintaining the image of the squeaky clean corporate spokesman.
Hunter-Reay should speak to Johnson about the path he took toward melding both sides of his life, the personal and professional, and experiment a little with showing he's more than just a driver in a bright yellow firesuit. He conferred with Johnson last year during his championship battle with Power on how best to handle the pressures that come with racing for a title.
In an effort to minimize distractions, he and wife Beccy decided not to announce she was pregnant with their first child, a secret they kept from the general public until the IndyCar banquet in December, the same month son Ryden was born.
He has clearly embraced fatherhood, and is now giving fans a glimpse of that side of him. With his wife and son at home on Sunday, he lamented in Victory Lane that Ryden wasn't there to see Daddy's first win. Those are the moments that stick with the casual sports fan far longer than his battle with Castroneves for the lead.
It's the hardcore racing nuts who appreciate what Hunter-Reay did on Sunday, and how he snatched the championship out of Power's grasp last year with a career season. But if Hunter-Reay is going to be a force to be reckoned with every race, and the great American driver IndyCar so badly needs, then it's a far wider audience he needs to reach.
The moment is his, and as he himself said Sunday, champions step up and deliver.