Hunter-Reay finally in the spotlight as the attention in IndyCar returns to racing

It's been more than six months since Ryan Hunter-Reay became the first American driver in six years to win the IndyCar championship.

Finally, with a new season set to begin, he may finally get some attention for his achievement.

As IndyCar heads back to the race track with Sunday's season-opening Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, the focus can finally return to the racing. The drivers and their on-track product have been largely overshadowed by the off-track issues that typically plague open-wheel racing, and there's been no bigger casualty than Hunter-Reay.

Not even mentioned among the preseason favorites a year ago, he put together a career season to climb into the title race. He used a late win at Baltimore to prevent Will Power from clinching, and snagged his first championship in the season finale at Fontana.

It was a defining moment for a driver who had clawed his way through the ranks and worked hard to stay in racing when funding dried up.

"The best thing about winning a championship, this is what I've been working for my entire life, it's a dream come true," Hunter-Reay said. "Nobody can ever take that away from me now, from us, from our team. It's something that we accomplished. We earned it, straight up earned it. Nobody can ever take that away."

No, they can't take it away. But the proper credit never came.

Speculation swirled about the future of IndyCar CEO Randy Bernard for months leading into the season finale, and it consumed the series after Hunter-Reay became the first American since Sam Hornish Jr. in 2006 to win the title. Bernard's eventual firing and the unrest it created among fans overshadowed everything, including any potential marketing opportunities the series could have had with Hunter-Reay.

IndyCar is playing catch-up now, with Hunter-Reay's face adorning banners and ads for both the series and Sunday's race through the streets of St. Pete, which is considered his hometown event because he lives in Ft. Lauderdale.

It's too little, too late because there's no looking back for Hunter-Reay or his Andretti Autosport team.

"We're starting new now," Hunter-Reay said. "We're the defending champions — and that does absolutely nothing for us when the green flag flies in St. Pete. We're starting all over again. We have to go out there and live up to the No. 1 on the side of the car."

He'll face intense pressure from Power, who came up short last season for a third consecutive year. He opened the season with three consecutive wins before the Indianapolis 500, struggled a bit on ovals, and found himself trying to stave off Hunter-Reay in the finale on the oval at Fontana.

Power ended up wrecking when he hit a seam in the track and lost the title by four points.

What does he need to do different this year to finally win a championship?

"Just get four points. I just need to score four more points," he laughed.

But he was serious.

"It's not really to change much. We made changes within the team and had a relaxing offseason," Power said. "I've never seen a team work so hard in the offseason really. Me personally as well, so all we can do is bring what we've got, do our absolute best. My approach to the season is really no different than it's been the last three years. Just going to keep chipping away and hopefully at some point we can get the thing done."

They'll both be challenged internally from their own teammates: Helio Castroneves at Penske Racing, and Hunter-Reay from James Hinchcliffe, who enters his second season with Andretti and was fast at Barber testing.

Andretti faces some other issues headed into 2013 as the team expands to its traditional four-car lineup with the addition of E.J. Viso and works to get Marco Andretti on the same pace as Hunter-Reay and Hinchcliffe. The addition of Viso could be interesting because the chemistry between the three Andretti drivers clicked last season, and he's coming in at a time when a lot of energy is being given to putting Marco Andretti's bad luck behind him.

"There is no question that I need to up my game on the streets," Andretti said. "I went overseas with a driver coach and everything. You can never be too proud. You can always learn something."

They'll all be carrying the banner for Chevrolet, which wrapped up the driver and manufacturer titles last season in its return to IndyCar.

That didn't sit well with Honda, which celebrated Dario Franchitti's win in the Indianapolis 500 but was otherwise overshadowed by Chevy. Nor did it sit well with Chip Ganassi, who had won five consecutive titles with Scott Dixon (2008) and Franchitti (2009-2011).

"I don't think it's any secret we need to be better this year," Ganassi said. "We all need to be better this year. Our team knows that. Honda knows that. We'll be better."

The Ganassi organization is down a car as Graham Rahal left to drive for his father, Bobby, at Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing. The team is expanding to two cars with the addition of James Jakes, and they'll have three entries at Long Beach with former winner Mike Conway getting the drive.

Other big movers this year were Takuma Sato to AJ Foyt Racing in a pairing everyone will be watching. The hot-tempered Texan has admitted "my Japanese ain't real good" and he's made it clear to Sato he doesn't want the driver taking chances to pick up positions when he's only got a 10th-place car.

Simona de Silvestro finds herself at KV Racing as teammate to Tony Kanaan in a big break for the Swedish driver.

"I've told her this is her chance, there's no excuses," Kanaan said. "It's the best opportunity she's had in IndyCar so far. Simona needs a good result, but the series does as well from having her, and her personality coming out more often will help us, too."

The series can use all the help it can get as it attempts to focus on the racing, which many consider to be the best on-track product in any major series.

The drama that plagues IndyCar always has a way of seeping in, and could again this year as Mark Miles, the new CEO of Hulman & Co., shapes the future of the series. He's looking for a CEO to replace Bernard and considering with Jeff Belskus what Indianapolis Motor Speedway needs to be modernized.

The drivers, like most fans, are hopeful the entire process remains in the background.

"I've tried not to pay much attention because it just makes me angry, the same way it makes the fans angry," Justin Wilson said. "All we can do is focus on the things we can control, and that's the racing part."