FONTANA, Calif. – Ryan Hunter-Reay opened the IndyCar season determined to take his career to another level.
He had a chance to race for the season-opening win at St. Pete, where a victory would have given him a nice little bump to start things. But when fuel became an issue, and his crew implored him to save gas over the closing laps, he backed off and settled for a third-place finish.
It's not easy to ask a driver, especially one who opened the season with all of three IndyCar victories, not to chase the checkered flag. Hunter-Reay willingly did it, though, because he'd changed his thinking and made the big picture — collecting every point possible — his focus.
It paid off Saturday night when Hunter-Reay capped a career year with his first championship at a major racing level. In finishing fourth, he beat Will Power by three points for the IndyCar title, the first for an American since Sam Hornish Jr. in 2006.
"I always believed that if I got the right opportunity and worked hard enough that I could be in this position," he said.
Hunter-Reay certainly had to earn it Saturday night at Auto Club Speedway.
He'd won three consecutive races over the summer to climb into a crowded championship race, only to have a string of bad luck after taking over the points lead for the first time in his career. But he staved off elimination two weeks ago at Baltimore, where Power had a chance to clinch the title, with a go-for-broke final restart that gave him a series-best fourth win of the year.
Still, he trailed Power by 17 points at the start of the finale and knew he'd need a great race and a lot of help from Power to snatch away the title.
The help came 55 laps in when Power, while racing Hunter-Reay for position, lost control of his car as it slipped in a seam in the speedway. Power crashed, and for the third consecutive year, his title chances seemed gone.
With Power in street clothes back in the paddock, the Andretti Autosport team did the math and determined Hunter-Reay needed a sixth-place finish to grab the title.
Only Penske Racing wasn't giving up so easy, and at least 20 crew members furiously went to work on repairing Power's car enough to get him back on track. If he could run 12 more laps, he'd gain another spot in the standings and force Hunter-Reay to finish fifth or better.
"Trust me, I was not happy when I heard we had to finish one more position up because they got him back out," Hunter-Reay said. "That was a curveball I wasn't expecting."
Power, meanwhile, had changed back into his firesuit and was willing to do whatever it took to put the pressure on Hunter-Reay. Experience has taught Power that anything can happen in IndyCar, and he's been on the receiving end of his own fluke accidents — a pit road collision that was not his fault in last year's second-to-last race ultimately cost him the championship.
"I feel bad for my guys to be three years in a row so close, and you see the effort that they put in just to get me out to do 12 more laps in such a short space for a completely wrecked car," Power said. "She wasn't pretty. That was like — I was very, very tense on the wheel. It was definitely a loose car. I thought I was going to crash again."
He completed those 12 laps, though, and then went back to his team truck to watch on television as Hunter-Reay tried to work his way up to a fifth-place finish.
As it turned out, Hunter-Reay had been struggling all week at Fontana with his car. He'd kept it quiet in an attempt not to draw attention to any of the issues he was having at Fontana, a track IndyCar hadn't raced on since 2005. Its wide lanes and slick surface had been an issue since Wednesday, when the track opened for an eight-hour test session in which Hunter-Reay wrecked early.
Then Mike Conway told A.J. Foyt Racing he wasn't comfortable racing on the oval, and E.J. Viso tweeted after Friday's practice he wouldn't race unless more downforce was added to the cars. So tension was high for everyone, and it mounted as the laps wound down.
Hunter-Reay worked close to where he needed to be, and it quickly became about the big picture again, just as it was six months ago in St. Pete.
Team owner Michael Andretti coached him over the radio: "You need to go get some spots" on one restart, and "we need you to hold your position" on another. Then came another curveball — a rare red-flag stoppage for Tony Kanaan's late accident, and the call from race control nearly unraveled the team.
Hunter-Reay screamed over his radio about the call by race director Beaux Barfield, and Andretti complained that Barfield "was changing the rules" with no warning. After a deep breath, the attention was turned to Hunter-Reay, who was told as he sat idling in his car, "You've got to stay focused."
He later said the entire sequence was excruciating.
"That was the most pressure I've ever had in my life, the last 20 laps of that race," he said. "Then the red happened and we had to sit there and think about it. I went into those restarts going for broke like we did at Baltimore. 'We have to be able to finish in the top four or five' was my thought. Lots of nerves this whole week, the championship on the line. You try to stay cool, put on your game face.
"But underneath it all, it's the biggest opportunity of your life. It's what you've been working on for, you know, 20 years to be at this point, and it all comes down to a weekend."
He pulled it out in the end, giving Andretti his fourth IndyCar championship as an owner but first since 2007.
When it was over, Power, who has nothing to show for three years of IndyCar dominance, visited Hunter-Reay during his championship celebration. He knew his mistakes this year on ovals had cost him the championship and praised Hunter-Reay for earning the title.
"At the end of the day, Hunter-Reay did a very solid job," Power said. "Won more races than anyone. Won on ovals, road courses, and he's definitely a deserving champion. There is no question."