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September 20, 2012  |   By Bruce Martin

2013 Indianapolis 500 Victory Next Target On Hunter-Reay's Radar

Now that Ryan Hunter-Reay has given the United States its first IZOD IndyCar Series champion since Sam Hornish Jr. in 2006, the next step is for the Andretti Autosport driver to become the first American-born Indianapolis 500 winner since Hornish did it that same year.

“We’re going to come out swinging,” Hunter-Reay said of next year’s 97th Indianapolis 500. “We were on the front row this year and had a car issue sideline us while running in the top three or four. I have full belief we can come back and win the Indianapolis 500.

“Indy has always been my goal, and that is something we are absolutely focused on achieving. We’ll be back against next year, and we’ll be back fighting hard, trust me.”

Hunter-Reay’s drive to the championship in 2012 may have started in 2011 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. He missed making the 33-driver starting lineup on Bump Day and was prepared to watch the 100th Anniversary Indianapolis 500 on the sidelines. At the time, team owner Michael Andretti called it the lowest point in his career, but Andretti struck a deal with fellow team owner A.J. Foyt to put Hunter-Reay in a car that was already qualified by Bruno Junqueira.

Although the move was quite unpopular at the time because Junqueira had earned his way into the starting lineup, it was not unprecedented. It wasn’t the way Hunter-Reay wanted to get into the race, but with big-time sponsors DHL and Sun-Drop supporting his effort at Andretti Autosport, a business decision had to be made to satisfy the sponsors.

It also lit a fire under his crew at Andretti Autosport.

“That was certainly a low point for us; the point that was a kick in the pants,” Hunter-Reay said. “That got us going to where we are today because we hit that low; we hit that bottom. Michael said to me at the time: ‘This will never happen again, we are going to win races. Enough of this.’ We went out and did really well after Indy that year, won a race at New Hampshire and closed out the season among the best in points for the second half of the season.

“Going into 2012, we had that momentum, and this year is a testament to how far we have come since 2011.”

Hunter-Reay is proud he is the first American champion in the IZOD IndyCar Series in six years.

“I’m honored to raise that American flag and bring the title back to America,” Hunter-Reay said. “It’s something I’ve always wanted to do, it’s a dream come true and to hold that American flag up and bring the title back to the United States. To hold that American flag with the Astor Cup for the IndyCar title is magical to me.

“I feel a lot of patriotic pride because as a kid I grew up watching the American drivers, and that is who I pulled for. I’m proud of my country – it’s an American series and to get a chance to raise the flag with a championship makes it very special.”

Andretti was one of the greatest IndyCar drivers the United States ever produced, and he also feels pride in what his team accomplished this season.

“I think it's great when an American beats the best in the world, and that's what happened,” Andretti said. “That is what makes its mean something. If it was just all Americans out there, then it doesn't mean as much. But when an American can beat all these other great drivers from different countries, it's a great thing. So I'm very proud to be an American. I'm very proud of Ryan, so it's a good feeling.”

By winning the 2012 IZOD IndyCar Series championship in dramatic, come-from-behind fashion Hunter-Reay delivered on Andretti’s promise at Baltimore that “We’re going to win this thing.”

Hunter-Reay had a remarkable season with a series-high four victories, including three wins in a row beginning with the Milwaukee Mile in June, continuing to Iowa Speedway and then a win on the streets of Toronto on July 8. His victory at Baltimore gave Hunter-Reay two wins on the ovals and two on the street courses, proving his versatility as a race driver.

“To win this championship you have to excel on all types of courses – road courses, street circuits, superspeedways and short ovals,” Hunter-Reay said. “The team did an amazing job this year. It really is the most diverse series in the world.”

Hunter-Reay claimed two championships in 2012, including the A.J. Foyt Trophy as the Oval Track champion of the series. Hunter-Reay drove part of the 2009 season for Foyt when Vision Racing combined its efforts with the Indy 500 legend – the first four-time winner of the Indianapolis 500.

“I really look up to A.J. – he’s a great person and a legend in this sport,” Hunter-Reay said. “It’s great to have a trophy with his name on it.”

The ability to excel on oval tracks was a key for Hunter-Reay and the inability to even finish the oval races was a major detriment to Power’s quest for the championship. Team Penske driver Power finished 18th in the Oval Track standings and was outscored by 82 points by Hunter-Reay. Power crashed in three of the five oval races this season.

“I feel for Will’s situation,” Hunter-Reay said. “I can’t say enough about Will. He has done an amazing job in the No. 12 Verizon car, but we came out on top and I feel our team was the most deserving. I feel like Will has a future championship coming soon.”

Hunter-Reay is the fourth driver at Andretti Autosport to win a championship, joining Tony Kanaan in 2004, Dan Wheldon in 2005 and Dario Franchitti in 2007.

“What a list to be on,” Hunter-Reay said. “That is very special to me and an honor to be on that list. To bring the championship back to Andretti Autosport is amazing. To be on that list is an honor.”

Wheldon and Franchitti both won the Indianapolis 500 in the same season they gave Andretti the IZOD IndyCar Series championship. Although Hunter-Reay was unable to achieve a victory in this year’s Indy 500, he’s already focused on getting to victory lane at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on May 26, 2013.