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The Biggest Moments of 2012

With seven consecutive championships going down to the final lap of the last race of the season, the IZOD IndyCar Series is doing something right.

The championship lead got tossed around like a hot potato in the latter stages of the season, and with a 500-mile finale closing out the campaign for the first time in more than a decade, anything was possible.

The end result, with Ryan Hunter-Reay as IndyCar Series champion, may be a surprise to some. But anyone who has followed the career of 31-year old Floridian Hunter-Reay over the long term knows he is amazingly adept at overcoming long odds.

The way he won a championship that many predicted Will Power would run away with is just another legendary chapter in the century-plus history of Indy car racing. Here are 10 key moments that defined the 2012 season:


1. Helio Castroneves wins the Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg – It was important for the IndyCar Series to put on a clean, competitive race in the first outing for the new Dallara DW12 chassis and turbocharged V-6 engines. So maybe it was appropriate that victory went to the driver who may have needed it the most.

Helio Castroneves had just suffered through the worst season of his 12-year career with Penske Racing, and some whispered that, at age 36, maybe he had lost a step. But Castroneves’ convincing win on the streets of St. Petersburg silenced the doubters, and he followed it up with pole position at Barber Motorsports Park for the next race. While he didn’t win the IndyCar championship that has eluded him for so long, Castroneves scored another race win at Edmonton and finished fourth in the standings.

The DW12 turned out to be one of the stars of the season, producing safe and exciting racing on every kind of track. For a series that prides itself on the diversity of its challenge, the DW12 proved to be a perfect tool.


2. The Chevy/Honda fight – INDYCAR worked hard to guarantee as much parity as possible between the competing engines. But with a fundamental difference in design philosophy between Honda’s single turbocharger and Chevy’s twin-turbo layout, there was room for discrepancy. Early in the season, Honda lobbied for a slightly larger inlet opening in the compressor cover, and Chevrolet fought it tooth and nail. An appeal panel finally agreed with INDYCAR’s decision to grant Honda the larger opening.

It didn’t really help. At Long Beach, Chevrolet introduced a new engine specification, and even though all of its drivers took a 10-position grid penalty, Will Power still won after starting 12th. The Honda engine was at its best in maximum power applications, and Honda was most competitive at the big tracks – Indianapolis, Texas and Fontana. Honda won Indy, but Chevrolet ended up with an 11-4 margin in race wins and easily took the IndyCar Series Manufacturer’s Championship.


3. Will Power’s three-race win streak – Will Power wears his emotions on his sleeve, and when the Australian qualified ninth at Barber Motorsports Park, it was obvious he wasn’t happy. Contrast that with his beaming face 24 hours later, after he had driven to victory from that ninth starting spot on a twisting road course where passing was expected to be scarce.

Power improved on that a couple of weeks later at Long Beach, where he swept to victory from 12th on the grid after being penalized 10 grid spots for an engine change. He completed the trifecta with an accomplished run to the checkers on the Sao Paulo Brazil street course, and at this stage of the season, many were predicting that Power would walk away with the IndyCar championship.


4. Dario Franchitti claims his third Indianapolis 500 win – The Hondas were not fast in qualifying. Only one Honda driver (rookie Josef Newgarden) made the Fast Nine qualifying session, and two-time winner Dario Franchitti lined up 16th.

But many of the Hondas – including those of Franchitti and his Target Ganassi Racing teammate Scott Dixon – reached their 1,850-mile obligation and were changed out for new, uprated units for the race. On Miller Lite Carb Day, the Ganassi cars suddenly ran 1-2, and they repeated that result in the race. Franchitti overcame a pit lane spin and a stern, last-lap challenge from Takuma Sato (who crashed trying to go for the win) to take his third Indy 500 triumph.


5. Texas: Graham Rahal crashes, hands controversial win to Justin Wilson – There’s a large group of fans hoping and wishing that Marco Andretti and Graham Rahal would develop into regular race winners. The Rahal contingent was less than three laps away from Graham winning at Texas Motor Speedway until he brushed the wall and had to slow enough to allow Justin Wilson past to cross the line first.

In some ways, Rahal never recovered from the disappointment. Well before the end of the season, he announced he would leave the Ganassi organization after this season. The runner-up finish at Texas was his only podium of the season, and he ended up 10th in the standings.

The win at Texas was by far the highlight of the year for Wilson and Dale Coyne Racing, but it came with some controversy. After passing inspection three times prior to the race, inspectors identified a small aerodynamic cover plate in post-race inspection. The No. 18 team was fined $7,500 and docked five entrant points, but the stigma of winning with a ‘cheating’ car tainted Wilson’s impressive effort.


6. Ryan Hunter-Reay’s three-race win streak – Ryan Hunter-Reay pulled himself back into the championship picture with a three-race win streak of his own. RHR was the undisputed master of short-oval racing in the DW12, and his march from fifth to first in the final stint at Iowa Speedway was a thing of beauty.

Hunter-Reay also said he enjoyed driving the car on street courses, and if Power was consistently the better qualifier, his American rival usually had every bit as much speed on race day. A perfect example was at Toronto, where pit stop strategy put RHR into a lead he would never relinquish, while Power struggled in mid-pack. Power finished 12th, 23rd and 15th in the three races Hunter-Reay won, losing scoring 109 fewer points in that stretch.


7. Power’s pit problems – Power got to a point where he felt like he couldn’t win – literally or figuratively. He led the first stint Toronto easily, but lost out because the pits were closed and the field was bunched up under caution just prior to the first round of stops. At Sonoma, Power was disadvantaged because the pits were left open when the caution flag flew. He made his stop a lap earlier than teammate Ryan Briscoe, but whereas Power got held up by cars that had slowed for the yellow on his out lap, Briscoe was able to continue at almost unabated speed and went on to win the race.

Meanwhile, at Mid-Ohio, Power and Scott Dixon stopped together under green, but Dixon was able to get in and out of his pit faster because his didn’t have to slow and swerve around tires like Power did. A reversal of any of those results could have won Power the championship.


8. Never give up – Hunter-Reay watched almost helplessly as the 34-point lead he built after Toronto turned into a 36-point deficit following Sonoma. Hunter-Reay was fastest qualifier at Edmonton but took an engine-change grid penalty and then was out-driven by Power in the race, finishing seventh to Power’s third. At Mid-Ohio, Hunter-Reay felt his engine deteriorating throughout the race, and it finally gave up with a few laps to go.

Then at Sonoma, he worked hard all weekend on a track that usually baffles the Andretti Autosport team. He was in position for a third-place finish until he got bumped off the track in the closing stages by Alex Tagliani. The French-Canadian was apologetic, but the damage to Hunter-Reay’s championship hopes was done – or so it seemed.

Hunter-Reay’s never-give-up attitude was on full display at Baltimore. Michael Andretti told RHR if he could stay on dry tires for two laps on a wet track, it would prove to be a strategic advantage. It was. Hunter-Reay slipped and slid but kept his car on the track until it started to dry. Meanwhile, Power stopped for rain tires – then had to stop again a couple laps later for dry rubber. Power’s sixth-place finish, combined with Hunter-Reay’s win, left the gap at much more reasonable 17 points heading into the season finale.


9. Crash and thrash – With a 17-point championship lead, Team Penske and Power knew they could be conservative at Auto Club Speedway. After a precautionary engine change, they lined up 13th, well ahead of Hunter-Reay. Yet early in the race, Power dropped to the back, and soon, he ran directly behind Hunter-Reay, as if just keeping him in sight.

Then on the 55th lap, the unthinkable happened. Running lower than usual through Turn 1, Power caught a seam in the paving of the banked oval. The No. 12 Verizon car snapped into a spin and clouted the SAFER Barrier with the left side.

The car was brought back to the pits, and 20 crew members from Penske’s three teams went to work. They got the car patched together well enough for Power to go out for another 12 laps, putting him 24th, ahead of EJ Viso, in the race order for an additional two points. But Power would have to get all the way up to 17th to take additional points away from Hunter-Reay, and there was not enough attrition for that to happen. All he could do was watch and wait.

Hunter-Reay needed to finish fifth or better to score more points than Power. He ran sixth or eighth for most of the night. He was elevated to fifth when Alex Tagliani blew an engine, then up to fourth when Tony Kanaan crashed. But Kanaan’s crash brought out a red flag, and Hunter-Reay had to endure a restart and challenges from Takuma Sato, Graham Rahal and Scott Dixon in the closing laps. In fact, Sato crashed on the last lap, trying to dive-bomb Dixon and Rahal. But Hunter-Reay crossed the line in fourth place, enough to clinch the title.


10. A champion is crowned – Once again, without the benefit of a points reset or a playoff scenario, the IndyCar Series delivered another spectacular championship battle. Much of the focus was on Power losing the championship for the third year in a row, but the sport gained a new American star in the form of Hunter-Reay.

The way he overcame rejection and defeat to keep his Indy car career alive is nothing short of inspiring, and after a decade of uncertainty, it’s great to see him rewarded with a championship and a stable future.

Known as a good guy on and off the track, Ryan Hunter-Reay is now an Indy car champion.
 

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