Ryan Hunter-Reay figured the luck had to go his way eventually.

Turns out Sunday was the day.

Hunter-Reay got the opening he needed to earn his first IndyCar Series victory when Scott Dixon made an uncharacteristic mistake, ending his bid for a fourth straight victory on the road course at Watkins Glen International.

Preparing to make a run at leader Darren Manning after a long caution period, Dixon spun out under yellow and was hit from behind by contender Ryan Briscoe. That gave the runner-up spot to Hunter-Reay, who easily passed Manning on the ensuing restart and drove away with the fourth series win for Rahal Letterman Racing and first since 2004.

"Right when it was happening, it was like a scene out of `Days of Thunder.' I couldn't see where cars were or nothing," Hunter-Reay said. "It was just black, a cloud of dirt in front of me. I picked the far left and, luckily, it was open.

"Immediately, I thought, `This is that point where everything finally pays me back a little bit for all the bad luck, pays this team back for all the bad luck its had, not only this year but over the past three years.

"But it wasn't gifted to us," added Hunter-Reay, who has run out of fuel or crashed while in contention several times since joining Rahal Letterman a year ago. "We had to go grab it from them."

It is the third open-wheel victory for Hunter-Reay, a Texas-born driver who won twice while driving in the now-defunct Champ Car World Series. And it came in his 16th IndyCar start.

"It's huge," Hunter-Reay said after doing some celebratory burnouts. "I'm an American boy, driving for Bobby Rahal, an American legend on a great American race course ... and this is a real Fourth of July weekend celebration."

"You have to have the right person in the driver's seat," said Rahal, who co-owns the team with TV personality David Letterman. "Every since Ryan came on board, he's raised the level of this team."

It was a strange finish to a race that went the first 40 laps on the 3.4-mile, 11-turn circuit with only a couple of minor incidents and wound up running under caution for most of the last 20 laps because of a series of crashes and spinouts _ several coming during yellow flag laps.

Dixon, trying to become the first IndyCar driver to win four straight races on any track, appeared to be in position, with only the vulnerable Manning _ whose best previous finishes were a quartet of fourths _ ahead of him as the field was about to get the green flag with 12 laps remaining

The series leader, winner of two races this season, including the Indianapolis 500, said he was trying to get some heat into his front new front tires after pitting on lap 41. He shot forward and, suddenly, his Chip Ganassi Racing Dallara spun.

"I was a complete idiot," an obviously embarrassed Dixon said after getting restarted and finishing 11th. "We lost a lot of valuable points today. I feel more down for Briscoe and the boys."

Briscoe, who started from the pole and led a race-high 37 laps, had to pit for a new nose after hitting the stopped Dixon. Briscoe finished 12th and was disappointed, but not angry.

"It's unfortunate," Briscoe said. "I can only imagine how Scott's feeling right now. I just wish he could have messed up and not gotten me involved. ... I think we had a real shot. It would have been a real good fight between me and Dixie down to the finish line."

Manning, driving for A.J. Foyt, made his final pit stop three laps earlier than the other leaders and inherited the top spot when the cars in front of him pitted on lap 42.

"I was a bit of a sitting duck," Manning said, shrugging. "We decided to stay out and I had to save fuel. We tried to save fuel and stay in front of people."

Once Hunter-Reay drove past the Englishman in the first turn of lap 52, it was all but over.

The last seven laps were run under green and Hunter-Reay pulled steadily away, beating Manning to the finish line by 2.4 seconds. Tony Kanaan, who crashed in the morning practice and drove the race with a sore left wrist, wound up third, followed by Buddy Rice, Marco Andretti and Bruno Junqueira.

Dixon's mistake was a break for Helio Castroneves, who had a terrible weekend but was able to hang onto second place in the season standings. The two-time Indy 500 winner started last in the 26-car field Sunday after breaking a throttle cable on Saturday in qualifying. He lost a lap early in the race when he had what his Penske Racing team said was "an electrical or gearbox" problem," but fought back to finish 16th.

Castroneves lost only five points and trails Dixon by 48 heading into next Saturday night's race at Nashville. Dixon's teammate, Dan Wheldon, whose car was damaged in a first-lap collision with Manning, wound up 24th and is 59 points behind Dixon, while Kanaan gained 16 points and now trails the leader by 66.