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April 07, 2013 | By Dave Lewandowski - INDYCAR.com
BIRMINGHAM, Ala. -- The No. 3 AAA Insurance Team Penske car was conspicuous with its black sidewall tires dotted with the Firestone emblem. The other 22 cars active on Lap 76 of the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama were on the red-ringed alternate tires.
The significance didn't slip past Andretti Autosport race strategist Michael Andretti and engineer Ray Gosselin, or driver Ryan Hunter-Reay in the No. 1 DHL car. Hunter-Reay, who followed Castroneves to the start-finish line by .3558 of a second on Lap 74, lined up to overtake the winner of the inaugural race at Barber Motorsports Park. The alternate Firehawks, which add grip/lap speed, helped accomplish the pass in Turn 5 of Lap 76.
Click it: Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama box score
For the remaining 14 laps, the challenger was two-time IZOD IndyCar Series champion Scott Dixon, who got past Castroneves for second on Lap 77.
"I was driving my tail off trying to stay in front of Dixon," said Hunter-Reay, who did to claim his first victory of the season by .6363 of a second on the 2.38-mile, 17-turn road course.
Castroneves finished third -- his second consecutive podium finish to grab the championship points lead -- and Charlie Kimball improved one position from his career-high qualifying spot. Will Power, who started on the front row, finished fifth.
"We knew we had to get it done because we had the reds and Helio had the blacks, and that’s how Helio was able to get us (for second on Lap 49), so we had to try to return the favor,” said Andretti, whose team is 2-for-2 in Victory Circle this season. "It really was a perfect weekend. I’m really happy and proud of the whole DHL crew."
Hunter-Reay, the reigning IZOD IndyCar Series champion, rebounded from an 18th-place finish in the season opener at St. Petersburg in the Chevrolet-powered No. 1 DHL car. The victory was the first by a No. 1 car since Sebastien Bourdais at Mexico City in 2007.
"His tire strategy worked in our favor; we had new reds on when he had blacks on and he was just a sitting duck at that point," said Hunter-Reay, who a day earlier earned the Verizon P1 Award. "I just kept patient and made it happen when I needed to. It was very challenging out there today. I’d like to thank all the other drivers, though, for keeping it on track and not going yellow because man, I didn’t want it to go yellow at the end."
There was a lone caution period on Laps 2-5 for debris in Turn 9. That didn't aid St. Petersburg race winner James Hinchcliffe, who was towed behind a Turn 3 barrier on Lap 4 because the left-rear wheel had worked itself loose from the No. 27 GoDaddy.com car.
"(The victory) is excellent," added Hunter-Reay. "It shows what we’re about. It shows that last year wasn’t a fluke. We really worked for it today. Unreal. I’m exhausted."
Hunter-Reay jumped 13 positions to third in the championship standings heading to the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach on April 21. Castroneves holds a nine-point lead over Dixon, who was the race runner-up for the fourth consecutive year.
"We switched up strategies a little bit. I think we had to gain like 12 seconds to get back to the guys that were leading, which was Helio and Hunter-Reay," said Dixon, who overtook Power for third on Lap 69. "(The) car was super fast. I think definitely one of the cars to beat. We almost needed a slightly longer race, maybe another full stint."
Josef Newgarden in the No. 67 Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing car and Tristan Vautier in the No. 55 Schmidt Peterson with Curb-Agajanian car earned their first top 10s. AJ Allmendinger, making his series debut in the No. 2 IZOD Team Penske car, qualified 10th and finished 19th.
"All in all, today was a good day," Allmendinger said. "There are a lot of positives to take out of it. We had a good start and I thought I was pacing myself well. We could have had a top-10 day without the couple breaks against us. It was a good day with a bad stall and unfortunately after that point we were saving fuel so it made it tough to make up ground. But I know that I can compete with these guys and look forward to getting even better at Long Beach.”