Hunter-Reay's Successful Gamble In Baltimore Creates Title Drama
One day before the Grand Prix of Baltimore, Will Power was asked if his quest for the IZOD IndyCar Series title was firmly in his control. After all, Team Penske driver Power was starting on the pole while his nearest championship pursuer, Andretti Autosport’s Ryan Hunter-Reay, didn’t even advance out of his first qualification group and qualified way back in 12th place on a street course where it is very difficult to pass.
“That doesn’t matter, man,” Power said. “If it’s wet and a mixed-up race, that can help him out. It’s funny how things work out. I’m not even going to think about anyone else. I know what I’m going to do, and that is focus on the job, try to be mistake-free and see what we can get.”
But Power’s premonition came true Sunday.
He was running away from the field, leading the first 18 laps before it began to rain. One problem: It was not raining hard enough to make the entire course wet. So a decision had to be made by Power and Team Penske President Tim Cindric whether to pit for rain tires or take a chance and stay on the racing slicks.
Power dove onto pit lane to put on the rain tires while Hunter-Reay’s team made the decision to stay on the track, taking over the lead on Lap 13. Team owner Michael Andretti determined that it would not rain for long, and if Hunter-Reay could keep from hitting the fence on the wet surface on racing slicks, he would be in great position to win the race when it stopped raining.
That’s exactly what happened. The key decision of the race allowed Hunter-Reay to leap-frog from 10th starting position (he moved up two spots when two drivers that qualified ahead of him incurred 10-grid spot penalties for unapproved engine chances) to the lead in less than 20 laps.
Hunter-Reay went on to score his fourth victory of the season. Power finished sixth. His championship lead over Hunter-Reay has dwindled from 37 points to just 17 heading into the season finale, a 500-mile oval race Sept. 15 at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif.
“Staying out in the wet on the dry tires was massive for us,” Hunter-Reay said. “It was a big gamble – a very risky gamble – it paid off for us. The next key was having really good restarts.
“These street circuits, especially when you have some weather involved, it’s anybody’s race. I was pushing 110 percent the whole time. I knew the championship was on the line today. What a day, man, it’s so cool.
“I never asked where Will Power was on the radio. I didn’t ask what position he was in, and I didn’t care. I just knew we had to do one thing, and that was win. I’ve learned a lot this season about hanging in there when things didn’t look right heading into a race weekend, and I’ve had some not so good cars and then have a great race. You have to believe that on Race Day things are going to come good if you keep hammering at it, and that is what we did.”
In the process, Power’s premonition has turned into fear.
“It was just, the weather -- it's just hard to make the decision which way to go there,” Power said. “Basically, there's a bit of confusion on the radio. I said I'll pit and then I said I'll wait one lap, and in the meantime, Tim (Cindric) was saying pit. I think we were talking at the same time, and he told me to pit and we missed that. I think that would have helped a lot. It's just unfortunate.
“It's every weekend, we are the quickest. Every weekend we are not just the quickest, but by a bunch, and circumstances seem to prevent us from winning. So that can become frustrating when you're the quickest guy in town. When you look at the last three races and even when you look at the run total leading, Edmonton we were the quickest and got the engine change and got back to third, so was a good day anyway. Mid-Ohio, pole, quickest again, lots in the pits. Sonoma, lost it on the yellow. And today lost it with the weather.
“But we are here and we have a 17-point lead, and it's going to be interesting in a 500-mile race. Maybe it will be the first, last race that I finish, because every year, I get crashed out. So I'm determined this time to just finish the last race and finish it as the leader of the championship.”
Power clinched the bonus points for leading the most laps – two times for 22 trips around the 2.04-mile, 13-turn street course around the Inner Harbor area of Baltimore. Hunter-Reay led five times for 13 laps – one lap less than rookie driver Simon Pagenaud’s 14 laps led.
But Power’s teammate, Ryan Briscoe, led during another decisive portion of the race. He was up by 1.0089 seconds over Hunter-Reay on Lap 65 before Charlie Kimball’s Dallara/Honda stopped on the course at the exit of Turn 3.
Five laps later, the field lined up for a restart, and Hunter-Reay laid back a few car lengths from Briscoe’s Dallara/Chevrolet for a side-by-side restart through the treacherous chicane area of the Pratt Street Straightaway.
When the green flag waved, Hunter-Reay nailed the accelerator and zoomed past Briscoe. Team Penske charged Hunter-Reay had jumped the restart and asked INDYCAR president Beaux Barfield to review it. Barfield determined Hunter-Reay had a legal restart and simply anticipated the green flag better than Briscoe.
“When it’s green they can go,” Barfield said. “It’s unfortunate for Ryan Briscoe and Roger Penske. I watched it and it appeared when you look at it in real time like a jumped-start but when you reviewed it and look at every fraction of a second – Briscoe did choose for the first time all day the left-side. So when he came out the chicane and the drivers are told to maintain some speed to pair up, Ryan Hunter-Reay is catching up and pulling alongside so he will have some speed differential over Briscoe. Then the green flag came out, and he was in the acceleration zone, so it was obvious there was going to be a non-call on it which we didn’t do.
“The time of the acceleration zone, when the green flag came out, the speed Briscoe was going and the speed Hunter-Reay was appropriately going to get alongside it was completely within the rules that was OK.”
To add to Briscoe’s misfortune, his overtake assist did not load properly into his engine so he never had the device to use in the race.
Briscoe, who finished 1.4391-seconds behind Hunter-Reay’s Dallara/Chevrolet, continues to believe Hunter-Reay jumped him on the restart.
“The fact is you're supposed to pair up,” Briscoe said. “He hung back about two car lengths out of the chicane, and then he accelerated from two car lengths back before I accelerated, and that's not how the restarts work. You come off the last corner, you pair up side by side, and then, within the zone, when the pole sitter, regardless whether he chooses left or right, it doesn't make a difference, when the pole sitter accelerates they wave the green flag. Not when the second place guy accelerates from two car lengths back, which is what happened.”
Pagenaud finished third in Dallara/Honda and was set to pass Hunter-Reay on the decisive restart when it appeared the race leader had too much speed to make it through Turn 1. But Hunter-Reay was able to thread his way through the turn and continue.
“I didn't think he would make it,” Pagenaud said. “He looked like he wasn't in good shape when he got into Turn 1. I tried to cross him there, and I planned on passing him in Turn 3. Once we got through Turn 2, I was riding his bumper and the car didn't turn, so I almost hit the wall. I had to back off, which took away all my chances to recover the lead in Turn 3. One of those deals, I guess. He did a good job, anyway.”
Scott Dixon was fourth in a Dallara/Honda for Target/Chip Ganassi Racing. Rubens Barrichello rounded out the top-five in a Dallara/Chevrolet for KV Racing, followed by Power.
There were 12 lead changes among seven drivers, but the 75-lap race had nine caution periods for 24 laps including a five-car pileup in Turn 4 triggered by Mike Conway appropriately on Conway Street in Baltimore. Other drivers involved were Justin Wilson, Marco Andretti, James Hinchcliffe and Graham Rahal.
The final restart of the race was less eventful for Hunter-Reay as he took the green flag with three laps to go and cruised to his season-leading fourth win of the season.
More importantly, it’s a two-driver battle with one race to go for the IZOD IndyCar Series championship heading to the big, 2-mile oval in Fontana, California.
And that has led Andretti – Hunter-Reay’s team owner who was also the race promoter for the Grand Prix of Baltimore – to make a bold prediction.
“We’re going to win this thing,” Andretti said about the championship.
The last time a prediction that bold was made involving Baltimore was New York Jets quarterback Joe Namath “guaranteed” victory in Super Bowl III over the Baltimore Colts in 1969. Namath delivered with the biggest upset in pro football history; can Hunter-Reay do the same thing?
Andretti’s bold prediction has put the pressure on Power, and it’s up for Hunter-Reay to deliver for that proclamation to come true Sept. 15. But if Sunday’s race is any indication, Hunter-Reay is doing what any true racer would do.
He’s going for it.