FONTANA, Calif. -- Ryan Hunter-Reay finished second in the Izod IndyCar Series season opener.
Yet not many people would have predicted he would finish first in the standings come season's end.
Little, if anything, was predictable in a year when INDYCAR introduced a new chassis and engine formula. And after a shaky start in testing, that car -- the Dallara DW12 spec chassis -- turned out to be one of the stars of the season.
On road courses and short ovals, street circuits and superspeedways, the DW12 almost always put on an entertaining show. Reducing downforce compared to the previous chassis eliminated dangerous pack racing on speedways and put control of the car back into the hands of the drivers, to their collective delight.
"At first it didn't seem like it had a shot at being a very nice car," said newly crowned champion Hunter-Reay, who led the series with four race wins split evenly between road racing and ovals.
"Where we came from the beginning of the season, from preseason testing to now, is definitely a big improvement. Now I'm enjoying it, especially on the road and street circuits. It was fun on the short ovals and on the big tracks -- we've had some of the best races we've ever had."
Adding to the intrigue was the return of engine manufacturer competition for the first time in six years. Three manufacturers signed up, though only two actually showed up with an adequate effort. Chevrolet dominated the season, taking 11 race wins to Honda's four, though Honda did score the big one with Dario Franchitti's victory in the Indianapolis 500.
However, Target Chip Ganassi Racing's inconsistent form was one of the major surprises of the season. After winning the last four IndyCar championships he competed in, Franchitti fell to seventh in the standings with that lone win at Indy. Scott Dixon scored a pair of wins and edged Team Penske's Helio Castroneves for third place in the championship.
While some of Ganassi's struggles can be put down to Honda lagging behind Chevrolet, it often was not even the most competitive Honda team. Sam Schmidt Motorsports' Simon Pagenaud finished fifth in the standings to earn Rookie of the Year honors; he along with Alex Tagliani (Bryan Herta Autosport), Justin Wilson (winner at Texas for Dale Coyne Racing) and American rookie Josef Newgarden (Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing) were all occasionally the fastest Honda runners.
It looked as though Penske would dominate the season after the legendary open-wheel team won the first four races. More specifically, it looked like Will Power would finally run away with the championship he had come close to winning the past two years, only to fall short to Franchitti.
Power won three races in a row at Barber, Long Beach and Brazil, but you always got the feeling that the intense Australian was just waiting for something to go wrong.
Power's downfall proved to be the four oval races that made up less than 30 percent of the 15-race IndyCar Series schedule. He crashed out of three of them -- including the crucial season finale at Auto Club Speedway -- and his only finish on an oval came at Milwaukee in 12th place.
Hunter-Reay won the four-race AJ Foyt oval championship with 168 points, while Power ranked 18th with only 86 points.
Conversely, Power won the Mario Andretti road racing championship, scoring 379 points in 11 races. But Hunter-Reay was the No. 2 road racer, and when the two categories were combined, Hunter-Reay was the overall champion by three points.
After his hat trick of wins in April, it seemed inconceivable that Power would not take another victory in 2012. Yet that's exactly what happened, all while Hunter-Reay put together a three-race win streak of his own to take a 34-point lead in the championship two-thirds of the way through the campaign.
Still, Power regained the lead in the points chase with three consecutive podium finishes while Hunter-Reay encountered misfortune in two of those races, finishing no better than seventh. After Round 13 at Sonoma Raceway, Power held a 36-point lead but his frustration in not winning a race in four months was palpable. It only grew more intense when Hunter-Reay used Andretti's daring strategy call to win the penultimate round at Baltimore while Power struggled to a sixth-place finish, setting up the superspeedway showdown at Fontana.
RHR's win at Baltimore cut the deficit to a more manageable 17 points.
"I felt like after Baltimore, we got back in control of our own destiny to a certain point," explained team owner and strategist Michael Andretti. "Now we knew, OK, we win and he could finish out of the top three. It made it a lot more realistic that we can do this.
We had some unlucky breaks early in the season. To bounce back from being seventh in the points to leading the championship, losing that lead and then gaining it back is massive. We just never give up.
”-- Ryan Hunter-Reay
"It ended up different," Andretti added. "I was hoping that we'd be winning and Will finished fourth. But when Will did crash, it opened up the opportunity for us. At that point, we knew we had a lot of hard work to do, but it opened it up. It gave us a target, and we went for it."
Another aspect to Hunter-Reay's championship is that American drivers are often perceived as underdogs in modern Indy car racing. Hunter-Reay is the first American Indy car champion since Sam Hornish Jr. won three IRL-sanctioned titles between 2001 and '06. The last American champion in the CART-sanctioned Indy car series was Jimmy Vasser in 1996, and the last American to win a unified, full-field title was Al Unser Jr. in 1994.
Hunter-Reay draped himself in an American flag for Victory Lane interviews and he was serenaded with "U-S-A!" chants from fans.
"It's important to me," Hunter-Reay said. "I'm very proud of my country; I always have been. I always looked up to the American drivers when I first started this whole deal. I was a genuine fan of the IndyCar Series, a genuine fan before I raced go karts, and I followed the American greats.
"Now here I am on the other side, and I see these kids that are looking up to us drivers. Man, it's so cool being on the other side of it all. I feel like I'm up against the best in the world and it's just amazing to get it done against the Ganassi and the Penske teams and the talent in the series."
While much of the championship coverage focused on Power's hard luck in falling short three years in a row, Hunter-Reay's decade-long Indy car career has been marked by adversity.
After winning races in his first two years in the CART series despite driving for smaller teams, Hunter-Reay found himself sidelined and for a two-year period from mid-2005 to mid-'07 he made a living running occasional sports car races and a few NASCAR tests.
Even after winning a race for Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing in 2008 his career remained in flux and he spent 2009 grinding just to stay involved in the sport. When given the opportunity to team up with the Andretti organization, Hunter-Reay made the most of it, developing into the leader the team has lacked for the past several years.
"I always believed that if I got the right opportunity and worked hard enough that I could be in the position to win races," Hunter-Reay said. "But then you go from winning races to competing for a championship, and that comes with another level of consistency. That comes from continuity and a team that believes in you. You build on that year after year.
"This year, we had to come back numerous times," he added. "We had some unlucky breaks early in the season. To bounce back from being seventh in the points to leading the championship, losing that lead and then gaining it back is massive. We just never give up."