LEEDS, Alabama – Two weeks ago on the streets of Long Beach Ryan Hunter-Reay had gone from “Champ” to “Chump.”
The 2012 Verizon IndyCar Series champion was in firm control of the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach before he found himself racing side-by-side with Josef Newgarden as both drivers were on new tires after making their final pit stop.
But as the two drivers approached turn four on the tight street course Hunter-Reay decided to push the issue. He collided with Newgarden’s car and it triggered a massive crash that wiped out many of the top contenders. Afterwards, Hunter-Reay’s team owner, Michael Andretti, criticized his star driver for showing a lack of patience.
Hunter-Reay did more than redeem himself Sunday at Barber Motorsports Park.
Hunter-Reay scored his second-straight victory in the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama as he led Andretti Autosport teammate Marco Andretti to the yellow and checkered flags in a race that ended under caution after Russia’s Mikhail Aleshin crashed with just seven minutes left in the race.
After the lengthy rain delay because of a severe storm that hit the area IndyCar officials made it a timed race at 1 hour and 40 minutes instead of the scheduled 90-lap distance. Because of that, it ended up being a 69-lap contest.
“I’ve been anxious (to compete) since we left Long Beach,” Hunter-Reay said as he drove to a decisive victory leading three times for 40 laps. “What a dream to have a car like that at that distance. Great to get the No. 28 DHL car with a Honda at a Honda (sponsored) race into Victory Circle. Long Beach should have been a great result, but we got it today.
“It’s great. There is no other way to bounce back really. It really feels good being Andretti 1-2. Marco did a great job today to get up there and fill that spot. As you can imagine, the week after Long Beach was a pretty long one. It was one where I just wanted to get back in a racecar as soon as I could.
“We knew it would be tough here. When it came to race time, I had the car in the wet; I had the car in the dry. They gave me exactly what I needed. I knew it was going to be close to make it all work out because it was so easy to make a mistake today. Just thrilled. This victory feels real good.”
The two Andretti Autosport Hondas finished 1-2 followed by three-time IndyCar Series champion Scott Dixon’s Dallara/Chevrolet. Simon Pagenaud’s Honda was fourth followed by pole-winner Will Power’s Dallara/Chevrolet, who had a big lead before he drove off course in the tricky turn five hairpin turn.
“The Verizon Chevrolet was really fast on the wet tires and I just got in trouble in turn five,” Power said. “I kept moving my braking point further and further into the corners and I got caught going too far. It’s tough to not push past the limits with wet patches everywhere. We really didn’t have the pace in the dry anyway, but that sure didn’t help our cause when I went off course. We may have just been a bit heavy on downforce.
“Still a fifth-place finish today and we have the points lead going into the month of May.”
Despite losing his chance to score his third win at Barber in five starts Power has an 18-point lead over Hunter-Reay heading to the Month of May at Indianapolis Motor Speedway beginning with the May 10 Grand Prix of Indianapolis.
Although it was a wet track it was a very clean start as the field made it through the tricky turns one, three and five portions of the track and nearly made it around the course except for an incident involving Carlos Munoz and Takuma Sato on the long back straightaway to bring out a brief caution.
After two laps of cleanup the green flag waved and Power drove off to a comfortable lead over Hunter-Reay.
Juan Pablo Montoya moved his way up to fourth as Josef Newgarden dropped back in the field after his fine fourth-place starting position. The tight battle on the track involved Dixon and Castroneves with the two in a side-by-side battle in turn five before Castroneves was able to display more horsepower down the next straight.
On lap 16, the leader, Power, drove off course through the grass but was able to get back on the course without a yellow flag slowing the field. Hunter-Reay took the lead away from Power because of that incident but Power was able to get back up to speed.
Sebastian Saavedra was in the lead when the green flag waved on lap 33 but was still running on rain tires trying to use a completely alternative strategy in an effort to get to victory.
That combination did not work as Hunter-Reay was able to get underneath the lead in the turn five hairpin to take the lead as the 2012 IndyCar Series champion was on fresh Firestone “Red” tires (softer compound built for speed but less durability).
When asked what he thought while he was behind Saavedra for a total of 11 laps, Hunter-Reay proved to be quite a scholar.
“Patience,” Hunter-Reay said.
To that, team owner Michael Andretti quipped, “You learned!”
But Hunter-Reay knew that time was on his side and would work against Saavedra.