Yet Kanaan was but a sitting duck when Hunter-Reay, on fresher tires after a bold strategy call by team owner Michael Andretti, steamed past the Brazilian to pace the final two tours of the Iowa Corn Indy 300.
A jubilant Hunter-Reay crossed the line 0.581 second ahead of Josef Newgarden, with Kanaan a disappointed third.
Rainier Ehrhardt/Getty ImagesRyan Hunter-Reay won for the first time since his Indianapolis 500 triumph in May.
"I have no idea how that happened," said Honda Performance Development public relations boss T.E. McHale with a laugh as he hugged Judy Dominick, his communications counterpart from Chevrolet Racing in the media center after the checkered flag. "We definitely stole one tonight."
Kanaan and Scott Dixon, his Chevrolet-powered teammate at Target/Ganassi Racing, dominated the 300-lap contest. But when Hunter-Reay and several other drivers took advantage of a full-course caution for Juan Pablo Montoya's crash on Lap 281, the scene was set for a dramatic finish to what had been a fairly mundane race.
Kanaan tried in vain to post what would have been just his second race win in four years, but Hunter-Reay quickly sliced through the field from 10th place after the Lap 292 restart. By the 296th lap, he was past Dixon into second, and there was nothing Kanaan could do to slow down Hunter-Reay and his flying Andretti Autosport Honda.
"I've won races like that before and I've lost them," Kanaan said. "It's just hard to take."
While Hunter-Reay got to enjoy the adrenaline rush of Victory Lane after a thrilling late-race pass for the win, what got him there was the pit stop call made by Andretti and engineer Ray Gosselin.
Kanaan said that pitting from the lead during the final yellow would have been "the craziest thing in the world," but those drivers who stopped for tires with 15 laps to go (including Hunter-Reay, Newgarden and fifth-place finisher Ed Carpenter) were in another league in the nine-lap sprint to the finish.
"We stole it today, but I'll take it any way we can get it," Andretti said. "What's really weird is that we talked before the race about if a yellow comes out with 15 laps to go. When it came time to do it I was like, 'Screw it.' What were we going to do, lose three spots? And I knew if we came in a lot would come in behind us -- and you saw what happened."
Newgarden, who matched his IndyCar career-best finish of second place for Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing, likened the speed difference of having fresh tires for the final sprint to driving in a video game.
"It was almost unfair," he said. "We kept carving up to the top and with five laps to go, I knew this was going to be really good.
"Nice to get a result, finally," he added. "A little unorthodox way to get it, but you have to do whatever it takes. We caught some breaks tonight and it was nice to show something representative of our pace."
The drivers who got freight-trained included incoming points co-leader Will Power, who brushed the wall on Lap 294 and dropped from fourth to 13th. His Team Penske teammate Helio Castroneves fared slightly better, holding on to finish eighth to claim sole lead of the IndyCar Series championship with a nine-point cushion over Power.
Hunter-Reay's win moved him up to third in the standings, 32 points behind Castroneves. Simon Pagenaud, who finished 11th Saturday night, is fourth (-50) followed by Montoya (-66).
The 2012 IndyCar Series champion could barely believe his good fortune after a bad run of races. Hunter-Reay had only a pair of top-seven finishes since winning the Indianapolis 500 in May, but his third victory of the 2014 season thrust him back into title contention.
"What a crazy day," he said. "Michael made a pretty bold call to take sticker [tires], but I didn't think we would have enough time with Montoya's car in the wall. All credit to the safety team for getting that cleaned up quickly so we could get back to racing.
"That was unreal and I hope I get to do that sometime in my career again," he added. "Having 10 cars all in front of me, all on used tires, was just a dream. It was a wild last few laps. We made the right call there, and we had a car that could take it."
It was the fifth consecutive victory at Iowa Speedway for Andretti Autosport, and the sixth in eight IndyCar Series races at the 7/8-mile oval.
"We've lost many races that way and to keep the record going here at Iowa was great," Andretti said. "It's such an awesome racetrack and we've got such great luck here.
"It was a day we probably weren't supposed to win but, like I said, we'll take it any way we can get it."
The main excitement before the frantic finish was Montoya's late crash, which resulted after he tried to pull out of an attempted pass on Carpenter.
The Colombian was unimpressed by what he viewed as a block by Carpenter.
"They all preach safe racing but when you try to pass them they're d---------," Montoya fumed in a television interview.
Carpenter denied the move was intentional, and said that he was not aware Montoya was so committed to the inside when he tried to experiment with a lower line.