Ryan Hunter-Reay wins title by three points over Will Power to become first American IndyCar champ since 2006

Ryan Hunter-Reay (above) seals his championship with a kiss. PHOTO CREDIT: Courtesy of Firestone Racing.

A rollercoaster IZOD IndyCar Series season deserved a rollercoaster ending, and Saturday night’s MAV TV 500 at Auto Club Speedway delivered.

At the center of it all were championship contenders Will Power and Ryan Hunter-Reay, who were separated by a mere 17 points going into the grand finale. And from the green flag to the final lap, the drama between the two never let up.

Power, the points leader, saw his bid for the crown flicker on Lap 56 of 250, when he lost control of his car and slammed into the Turn 2 wall – nearly collecting Hunter-Reay in the mayhem. His Team Penske crew went to work on the machine and repaired it to the point where it enabled Power to come back on the track at Lap 123 and run enough laps to move from 25th to 24th – which forced Hunter-Reay to finish fifth or better in order to claim the title.

But the fate of the championship was solely in Hunter-Reay’s hands, and he would not let the opportunity slip from him. After racing around outside the top five for the majority of the night, he put on one last rally in the final laps that vaulted him to a fourth-place result.

By a mere three points over his Australian rival, Hunter-Reay won the big prize and achieved the pinnacle of his career.

And after years of struggle, of bouncing from team to team, of wondering whether he’d ever become a champion, he was ecstatic.

“This hasn’t sunk in yet,” a joyous Hunter-Reay exclaimed on pit lane. “I just drove 500 miles for my life. I can’t believe we’re INDYCAR champions…My dream has come true. This is unbelievable.”

Equally thrilled was Michael Andretti, his team owner at Andretti Autosport and the man that helped stabilize Hunter-Reay’s career in 2010 when he offered the Florida native an early-season ride that eventually turned into a full-time program.

“This is an incredible day,” said Andretti, who now has his fourth IndyCar championship as a team owner (Tony Kanaan, 2004; Dan Wheldon, 2005; Dario Franchitti, 2007).

But for Power, it was another heartbreaking collapse. After losing out in the 2010 and 2011 championships to Franchitti, Power was hoping to prevent the same outcome to occur for a third consecutive year.

Instead, he was forced to sit and watch as Hunter-Reay came through in the clutch and snatched the Astor Cup away from him.

“I feel bad for the team,” said Power, whose car crossed over a seam on the two-mile oval and broke loose to trigger his fateful wreck. “I really do. I feel bad for my guys to be, three years in a row, so close, and you see the effort that they put in just to get me out to do 12 more laps in such a short space for a completely wrecked car.

“I don’t know what to say. I feel sorry for Penske Racing to end up in this position again because of one of my mistakes.”

With less than 25 laps remaining, it looked like the car-saving efforts of Power’s crew would be enough to help him overcome his crash. Hunter-Reay was running sixth at the time and didn’t appear to have the pace to get that one more position he needed in order to win the title.

But then Alex Tagliani, who was running ahead of Hunter-Reay, slowed in Turn 4 with mechanical problems on Lap 230 and fell out of the race. That enabled Hunter-Reay to move up to fifth and following a restart with 15 laps to go, the American won battles with Scott Dixon and Takuma Sato to reach third position before Tony Kanaan found the wall with nine laps to go.

After a curious decision to throw an ultimately brief red flag (Kanaan came out of his crash fine), the green flew again with six laps left. While Franchitti and Ed Carpenter battled wheel-to-wheel for the race victory, Hunter-Reay began to slip back, losing third to Dixon with five laps left and then fourth to Sato with two laps left.

But it would be Sato’s crash on the final lap in Turn 2 that would freeze the field for the last time. Carpenter got by Franchitti before the incident and he would go on to take the checkered flag for his second IZOD IndyCar Series race win and his first as a team owner.

“I just kept my foot in it and drove all the way down into Turn [Three] just in case it was a false yellow or something,” said Carpenter of his final lap. “I wanted to make sure I stayed clear of Dario. I was happy when [the yellow] came out, because I knew I was in front of him and knew it was the last lap, so I was fist pumping down the backstretch.”

Surely, the Andretti Autosport crew was doing the same on pit lane as their man Hunter-Reay became the first American to win the series championship since 2006 (Sam Hornish Jr.) – surviving unbelievable pressure in the process.

“You try to stay cool and put on your game face, but underneath it all, it’s the biggest opportunity of your life,” said Hunter-Reay. “It’s what you’ve been working on for, you know, 20 years, to be at this point, and it all comes down to a weekend.

“I’m just so glad that we’re past it now and sitting here talking about it.”

Rest assured, Ryan, we’ll be talking about it for a long time.

IZOD IndyCar Series
MAV TV 500 — IndyCar World Championships
Auto Club Speedway, Fontana, Calif.

Order of finish, starting position in parentheses, driver, chassis-engine, laps completed and reason out (if any):

1. (5) Ed Carpenter, Dallara-Chevy, 250, Running
2. (9) Dario Franchitti, Dallara-Honda, 250, Running
3. (15) Scott Dixon, Dallara-Honda, 250, Running
4. (22) Ryan Hunter-Reay, Dallara-Chevy, 250, Running
5. (17) Helio Castroneves, Dallara-Chevy, 250, Running
6. (18) Graham Rahal, Dallara-Honda, 250, Running
7. (21) Takuma Sato, Dallara-Honda, 249, Contact
8. (1) Marco Andretti, Dallara-Chevy, 249, Running
9. (7) Katherine Legge, Dallara-Chevy, 249, Running
10. (23) Charlie Kimball, Dallara-Honda, 249, Running
11. (4) JR Hildebrand, Dallara-Chevy, 248, Running
12. (12) James Jakes, Dallara-Honda, 248, Running
13. (19) James Hinchcliffe, Dallara-Chevy, 247, Running
14. (24) Wade Cunningham, Dallara-Honda, 246, Running
15. (20) Simon Pagenaud, Dallara-Honda, 246, Running
16. (14) Josef Newgarden, Dallara-Honda, 244, Running
17. (2) Ryan Briscoe, Dallara-Chevy, 244, Running
18. (3) Tony Kanaan, Dallara-Chevy, 240, Contact
19. (8) Oriol Servia, Dallara-Chevy, 231, Running
20. (16) Alex Tagliani, Dallara-Honda, 229, Contact
21. (10) Sebastian Saavedra, Dallara-Chevy, 118, Electrical
22. (6) Rubens Barrichello, Dallara-Chevy, 107, Mechanical
23. (25) Justin Wilson, Dallara-Honda, 80, Mechanical
24. (13) Will Power, Dallara-Chevy, 66, Contact
25. (11) EJ Viso, Dallara-Chevy, 65, Mechanical
26. (26) Simona de Silvestro, Dallara-Lotus, 16, Mechanical
Race Statistics
Winners average speed: 168.939
Time of Race: 2:57:34.7433
Margin of victory: 1.9132
Cautions: 10 for 43 Laps
Lead changes: 29
Lap Leaders
Kanaan 1
Andretti 2 – 4
Hildebrand 5 – 35
Briscoe 36 – 37
Sato 38 – 39
Newgarden 40
Hildebrand 41 – 65
Carpenter 66 – 75
Jakes 76 – 85
Carpenter 86 – 109
Dixon 110
Carpenter 111 – 122
Dixon 123 – 133
Kanaan 134 – 147
Castroneves 148 – 149
Sato 150 – 152
Kanaan 153 – 184
Dixon 185 – 195
Carpenter 196
Dixon 197 – 198
Carpenter 199 – 203
Tagliani 204 – 217
Carpenter 218
Tagliani 219 – 223
Franchitti 224 – 225
Tagliani 226 – 227
Sato 228
Carpenter 229 – 236
Franchitti 237 – 249
Carpenter 250
Point Standings: Hunter- Reay 468, Power 465, Dixon 435, Castroneves 431, Pagenaud 387, Briscoe 370, Franchitti 363, Hinchcliffe 358, Kanaan 351, Rahal 333

Quotes used in this article were taken from Saturday’s post-race press conference and some team press releases.