FONTANA, Calif. — The final race of the 2012 IZOD IndyCar Series season turned out to be a Dream Sequence.
For the series champion, Ryan Hunter-Reay, he never gave up on his dream of not only competing against but beating the best drivers in the world as he became the first driver from the United States to win the IndyCar championship since Sam Hornish Jr. in 2006.
For race winner Ed Carpenter, he has often dreamed of winning a “500-Mile Race” although he didn’t realize that 500 victory would come in the MAVTV 500 at Auto Club Speedway, instead of the Indianapolis 500 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway which is his family’s heritage.
But for Team Penske driver Will Power, this dream had the same nightmarish outcome that he has experienced the past three years. He’s entered the final race of the season as the IZOD IndyCar Series points leader only to crash out and lose the championship.
The final race of the IZOD IndyCar Series season has become Power’s version of “Ground Hog Day” as the driver from Australia lives the same day over and over and over.
Perhaps the best driver in the IndyCar Series Power’s inability to win a championship has made him the “Greg Norman of IndyCar.” Norman was an unbelievably talented golfer from Australia who simply faded in the final round of practically every “Major” tournament that he participated in. Some even compared Power to IndyCar’s version of the Buffalo Bills as the NFL team went to four-straight Super Bowls only to come up short in every appearance.
Those comparisons are cruel and may be unfair. But one thing is certain – Power and his Team Penske crew on the No. 12 Verizon Dallara/Chevrolet displayed the heart of a champion after Power hit one of the asphalt seams on the race track in turn two and crashed hard into the wall on lap 55. When Power spun his car came within a few feet of hitting Hunter-Reay’s Dallara/Chevrolet. If both cars had crashed and were unable to continue in the race, Power would have won the title as he entered the contest 17 points ahead of Hunter-Reay.
The entire left side of the car was damaged and it appeared Power’s hopes were over.
Not so fast.
If Power’s car could be repaired and if he could complete 12 more laps he would finish ahead of E.J. Viso in the final standings. That meant Hunter-Reay would have to finish fifth and not sixth in order to clinch the championship.
More than 20 different Team Penske crew members from all three cars worked feverishly to repair the damaged race car and Power was able to rejoin the race on Lap 124. After completing the 12 laps to guarantee he would finish ahead of Viso and without the prospect of advancing any further in the field, Power’s car went back to the garage area, this time for good.
“That’s what you have to come prepared for,” Cindric said. “That’s the way it goes in this business. Some days it’s yours and some days it’s not. A seam caught him out and that is how he lost control. We have had a good season and all that but you always want more.”
That put the pressure on Hunter-Reay, who had to score a top-five finish in order to win the championship. At that point in the race, that certainly wasn’t a guarantee because Hunter-Reay’s Chevrolet was struggling to keep up, dropping toward the bottom of the top-10.
With Power out of the race and Hunter-Reay struggling the keep up, the battle up front was fierce between Carpenter, Scott Dixon, James Jakes, Dario Franchitti, Alex Tagliani and Tony Kanaan. There were 29 lead changes among 12 drivers in what had turned out to be an outstanding race in IndyCar’s return to the two-mile Auto Club Speedway since 2005.
There were two races going on — the one that would determine the first to 500 miles and the race to determine the championship. Both would be filled with drama.
Takuma Sato took the lead on lap 228 and Hunter-Reay was in sixth-place – one position out of clinching the title. Two laps later, he made it to the top-five because Alex Tagliani’s car conked on and came to a stop on the race course. When the green flag waved on lap 235, Carpenter was in the lead followed by Sato and Franchitti. Two laps later, Franchitti, this year’s Indianapolis 500 winner for the third time in his career, was in front of the field and became to drive away from Carpenter before another yellow flag just nine laps from the finish when Tony Kanaan spun and hit the turn-one wall.
One lap later, IndyCar President of Competition Beaux Barfield made a surprising and controversial decision to stop the race by displaying the red flag.
Hunter-Reay’s team owner, Michael Andretti, was livid. Not only did he believe the red flag was unnecessary, it created more pressure and tension on Hunter-Reay as he tried to maintain the top-five position and clinch the championship.
“I don’t know why they did that,” Andretti said. “It’s really disappointing – changing rules here on the fly. It’s never been done before. It’s a first. I just hope it doesn’t cost us the championship. But Ryan’s car is good and he has something to fight with. The whole year has come down to this and we knew it was going to be a hard fight all night. We told Ryan to keep hanging in there and he did. Let’s see if he can win this thing.”
The engines were refired after a 4 minutes, 56 second delay and racing resumed with Franchitti in the lead just six laps from the checkered flag. Hunter-Reay had moved up to third place and was locked in a battle with Sato as the laps were winding down.
On the white-flag lap, Franchitti was in the lead but Carpenter passed the three-time Indy 500 for the lead just moments before Sato spun and crashed in turn two to bring out the yellow flag, give Carpenter his second career IndyCar victory and Hunter-Reay the championship.
After Hunter-Reay won the Grand Prix of Baltimore on September 2 Andretti vowed that he was going to win the championship. Hunter-Reay backed up Andretti’s guarantee by delivering the championship – the fourth for the team. Tony Kanaan won the title in 2004, the late Dan Wheldon in 2005 and Franchitti in 2007.
Add Hunter-Reay’s name to that list as IZOD IndyCar Series champions for Andretti Autosport.
“He did it man; he did a great job,” Andretti said. “He just did a hell of a job there at the end. When he needs to step it up he steps it up. He got us this championship. I’m really proud of him. This is a game of inches and when Will Power spun we got away with it.
“It’s an unbelievable weekend. We won the pole with Marco Andretti and won the championship. But it was big-time tense. This was a team effort and we have a great driver. This is the best championship. This one means the most. The pressure was on until the last lap. We had to keep our composure and get the job done. And it came down to the last lap of the last race to win the championship.
“You can’t beat IndyCar racing — it’s the best in the world.”
Hunter-Reay’s wife, Beccy, was jubilant as she ran down pit lane to greet her husband in the biggest moment of his racing career. But she stopped on pit lane to get congratulations from someone who made a surprising return to the season-finale.
It was Susie Wheldon, the widow of the late Dan Wheldon who was killed in horrific crash in last year’s IZOD IndyCar Series season-finale at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
It was yet another moment that added to this unbelievable “Dream Sequence” on a surreal night in the Inland Empire of California.
“Beccy, I’m so happy for you,” Susie Wheldon said to Beccy Hunter-Reay.
“You said it – you said what is meant to be is meant to be,” Beccy said to Susie Wheldon.
“The red flag was not what Ryan needed at the time but maybe it calmed him down,” Beccy Hunter-Reay said. “And oh my God, I just realized that Ed Carpenter won. Oh my Gosh. And I used to work at California Speedway. I did my internship here. I can’t tell you how insane this is. We had 38 family members here. This is amazing.”
Hunter-Reay was able to stop on pit lane for a massive celebration with his crew.
“This team did an excellent job,” he said. “We were lost on setup and we had three great teammates that helped and this was a teammate. The only reason I won the championship today was a total team effort. When that red flag came out I didn’t want to see it because I had a rhythm going. I was going to go full-out or I was crashing. There was tons of doubt tonight but we just kept at it. That’s what we have done all season.
“When we were 37 points back at Baltimore I didn’t think this was possible but we were going to give it a shot.”
At that point, a fellow driver dressed it street clothes made his way through the crowd to congratulate Hunter-Reay on his victory.
That driver was Power, the man who had fought so hard; come so close to winning championships each of the past three seasons only to suffer the bitter disappointment of seeing his dream turn into a nightmare by hitting the wall.
“You deserve this championship,” Power told Hunter-Reay. “You were the best driver all season.”
While Hunter-Reay’s crew continued to celebrate Power made the long walk down pit road flanked by his public relations representative Merrill Cain. He had time to reflect on yet another dream turned into a nightmare.
“Yeah, man, another tough one,” Power told NSSN.com. “I have to say Hunter-Reay is a very deserving champion. He won more races than anyone and he is a very good all-around driver. As you can see, it’s a combination that is very tough to beat.
“To sit and watch this race on the couch was pretty intense realizing we had a chance to still win this championship. It’s another second another year….”
Power realized his team did a championship effort to repair the car just so he could make 12 more laps.
“That was very impressive,” Power said. “When I saw there was still a chance we could win it I didn’t want to watch. But to rely on Ryan having a bad day is not the way to win a championship. Ryan is certainly a fighter and as far as all-around drivers he is on top of the list.
“But for me, if I could just finish the three oval races I crashed out of that would be big points. I wasn’t being aggressive on the oval here. You just can’t win, you know? I just simply have to get better on the ovals. I’ve won the road course championship quite convincingly so it is very obvious where I lack.
“I was just sitting there praying to have a couple of guys pass him. I feel bad for Penske Racing.”
Carpenter’s Dallara/Chevrolet finished 1.9132 seconds ahead of Franchitti’s Dallara/Honda in a race that finished under yellow. Target/Chip Ganassi Racing driver Scott Dixon in a Dallara/Honda. Hunter-Reay finished fourth in a Dallara/Chevrolet to claim the championship with Team Penske driver Helio Castroneves rounding out the top-five in a Dallara/Chevrolet.
Not only was it Carpenter’s second career IndyCar win as a driver it was his first as a team owner.
Carpenter grew up at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway – his mother, Laura, married to former IMS President and Indy Racing League founder Tony George. So there were many times that Carpenter dreamed of winning a “500-Mile Race.”
Well, he did – but it came at California and not Indianapolis.
“It was a wild race,” Carpenter said. “I had never done a 500 miler before other than in Indianapolis, so there were a lot of things to not know what to expect. But it was fun. We started out great, and the car was really good early. I felt really confident coming into the race that we had a good car. We started trying to make it better, because it wasn’t the best car early, and we actually made it worse. We just kept working on it and got better and better as the race went on. Got a couple of good restarts in the end. I got in good position and was able to make a well timed pass on Dario and get a yellow to come out.
“The red flag, I guess that is a new procedure at IndyCar that none of us had heard about, but it worked out for me tonight, so I’ll take it.”
Carpenter finally got to celebrate a win a in a “500.” Hunter-Reay finally got to celebrate an IZOD IndyCar Series championship but he paid tribute to how Power and his team went down fighting even after crashing into the wall.
“I think Will is one of the great talents there has been in IndyCar in a very long time,” Hunter-Reay said. “He is one of the best. His talent level, what he does on the track, especially some of these road courses and street circuits some of us haven’t seen at all. He certainly would be a deserving champion if he won it.
“But we had a breakout year. We really did. We fought for this thing. I certainly feel bad for Will ending up in the wall like that. They got him out there. And trust me I was not happy when I heard we had to finish one more position up because they got him back out. That was a curve ball I wasn’t expecting.
“But Will coming in runner up quite a few seasons in a row, it’s just a matter of time before he wins it with the talent that he has. He’s certainly great for IndyCar in many ways.”
It was Hunter-Reay’s time on Saturday night. And it’s time for Power to finally end this nightmarish cycle of losing the championship in a Greg Norman-like meltdown in the final round.
Talk about waking up in the middle of a dream Power simply wants his nightmare to come to an end.