$PHOTOCREDIT_ON$By Jenna Fryer$PHOTOCREDIT_OFF$
Associated Press Auto Racing Writer
When Penske Racing considered championship favorites this year, Ryan Hunter-Reay did not make the list.
It wasn't a slight: Hunter-Reay has never won a title at a top level and had never finished higher than seventh in the IndyCar standings.
"I am surprised that it's come down to us because, while he's certainly capable, he typically hasn't been in the championship mix," said Penske Racing President Tim Cindric. "But this year, he's managed the opportunity really well. His bad races have still been good. He's limited the mistakes and he's done a good job."
Good enough to keep Penske driver Will Power from clinching the championship last Sunday at Baltimore.
Hunter-Reay went into the event with his championship chances dwindling, and pulled off a victory that kept him in the title race. He heads into the Sept. 15 season finale trailing Power by 17 points. Still, team owner Michael Andretti believes winning the title won't be easy.
"We are still going to need to have a really good race, and we are going to need (Power) to have just an average race," Andretti said.
Hunter-Reay has proved this year, his fifth full season in IndyCar, that he is capable of running exceptional races. He has won a career-high four races this season and used three consecutive victories this summer to establish himself as a title contender. His 153 laps led is also a career high, as are his six podium finishes.
And if not for myriad problems, he'd maybe be the points leader headed into the finale.
A penalty at Long Beach cost Hunter-Reay a podium finish, and he didn't finish at Indianapolis and Texas after mechanical failures. His engine failed at Mid-Ohio, and in the hardest to swallow bit of bad luck, late race contact from Alex Tagliani two weeks ago at Sonoma cost him another podium finish.
The incident with Tagliani cost Hunter-Reay 23 points. Had it not happened, he'd be up by six on Power right now.
Andretti said the team did a good job of not getting too discouraged after Sonoma, even though it put them on the ropes.
"The problem that happened in Sonoma was we lost control of our own destiny," said Andretti, who stressed the team kept everything in control at Baltimore, where Hunter-Reay had to win. "We got a little bit of help this weekend, whereas, you know, we got lucky, we pulled a good strategy and we put Will in the middle of the pack and we were able to gain a ton of points."
It will be tough to get everything to go their way again, and dangerous to expect Power to have problems.
Power has been in the championship race headed into the finale the last two seasons, and lost to Dario Franchitti both times. Cindric believes those were learning experiences for Power.
"He's in a much better place than where he's been the last couple of years," Cindric said. "I am confident that if something unforeseen doesn't happen, he's in position to get this done."
Part of the Penske confidence is that Power and his cars have been outstanding this year. He opened the season with three wins in the first four races, has started from the pole five times and shown himself to be a stronger driver on ovals than before. He was knocked out of the Indianapolis 500 in an accident, and a late blocking penalty took away his chance at victory at Texas, where he led for 24 laps.
"We as a team haven't been able to put the numbers on the board," Cindric said. "But I've said all year, I'd put him against any of our guys on the ovals. We just haven't been able to get to the end. We've run better on the ovals, he's more confident than what he's been before. He's not concerned about ovals."
And the Penske team isn't thinking about Hunter-Reay stealing this championship. The only focus is on Power running his own race and taking control of his fate. "I like our chances. I am confident that if something crazy doesn't happen, if we finish the race, I don't see us losing," he said.