TORONTO – A year ago, IndyCar driver Ryan Hunter-Reay left Toronto hoping a third-place finish would be enough to provide the kick start to what had been a disappointing season.
Little did he realize how long that surge would last.
This week, Hunter-Reay feels much better about himself in preparing for the Honda Indy Toronto on Sunday.
"I'm definitely very confident with the car I have under me and the team I have behind me," Hunter-Reay said. "I know that when we get it right, we're tough to beat."
Try unbeatable of late.
Back from the series' week off, Hunter-Reay is riding a two-race win streak after victories on ovals at Milwaukee and Iowa.
In becoming the first American-born IndyCar driver to win consecutive events since Sam Hornish Jr. in 2006, Hunter-Reay has vaulted into the hunt for the championship. With 283 points, he's second in the standings, three behind Will Power, and 12 ahead of Scott Dixon.
And it's a run that dates a calendar year, a stretch in which Hunter-Reay has finished third or better seven times in 17 races, including three wins, making Toronto a good spot to pick up where he left off.
"A year ago, this was the beginning," he said. "Toronto was the beginning of digging ourselves out of our half-season hole."
Hunter-Reay is referring to the first half of a 2011 season in which he failed to finish three of his first seven races, and was hardly better when his car was running. That doesn't include the Indianapolis 500 in which he failed to qualify before team owner Michael Andretti cut a deal to put Hunter-Reay in an A.J. Foyt car that had qualified.
Starting with Toronto last year, Hunter-Reay earned 232 of his 335 points over the final eight races — including a win at New Hampshire — to finish eighth in the standings.
Hunter-Reay's approach to this year's race is entirely different.
"If we could just put together the second half of the season we had last year, there's no reason why we can't win this championship," Hunter-Reay said.
Though all three of his most recent victories have come on ovals, he's not concerned about taking on a tight and twisting 1.75-mile Toronto road course that has a history of producing numerous crashes.
"It's certainly a track I really enjoy," Hunter-Reay said, noting his first win in the Skip Barber Formula Dodge series came at Toronto. "It comes back to street-racing, you're just hoping you don't get caught up in any of the incidents that are bound to happen."
He's held his own on street courses this season, having finished second at Brazil, and third in St. Petersburg, Fla.
Hunter-Reay's emergence is regarded as a mild surprise in part because he's often been overshadowed by his teammates. Hinchcliffe, last season's rookie of the year, is the focus of attention this weekend because he grew up just outside of Toronto. Marco Andretti has the name recognition. And then there was Danica Patrick last year, before she made the jump to NASCAR.
Sebastien Bourdais isn't surprised when the name Hunter-Reay comes up in conversation. He's regarded his competitor as one of IndyCar's more consistent drivers, and someone capable of winning the title.
The 31-year-old Hunter-Reay is coming into his own by becoming a more complete driver. He's more attuned with the nuances his car — whether it's tire wear or fuel. And he's showing more patience on the track, where he's being more conservative in taking fewer risks in avoiding trouble.
"That comes with experience, and I think finally it's just hit home for me," he said.
He led the final 83 laps in winning at Milwaukee three weeks ago. At Iowa, Hunter-Reay smartly avoided trouble and came from behind — passing Dixon with 12 laps to go — for the victory. If not for a suspension problem at the Indy that left him 27th and a mechanical problem at Texas (21st), he'd been in better shape.
"Those two mechanical failures hurt, but if you look at our whole season, we've been very strong week in and week out," he said. "So I didn't really see it as a surprise to win two in a row."