BIRMINGHAM, Ala. -- Halfway through the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama, Ryan Hunter-Reay could feel the race slipping away from him.
The defending IZOD IndyCar Series champion had started from pole position at Barber Motorsports Park and pulled out to a 12-second lead after 25 of the 90 laps.
But in typical IndyCar Series fashion, alternate pit-stop strategies shuffled the field, and 20 laps later, following the second of his three scheduled stops, Hunter-Reay found himself in a Team Penske sandwich.
Ahead was championship rival Will Power, who had started from the front row, dropped to eighth after a bad start, yet found himself at the front of the field after strategist Tim Cindric decided to try to complete the race with just two pit stops.
Right behind was Helio Castroneves, running the same pit-stop strategy as Hunter-Reay, and closing in quickly by using the advantage of being on the faster red-sidewall Firestone alternate tires during the second stint while Hunter-Reay was on the standard black tires.
Try as he might, Hunter-Reay just couldn't get past Power. Then on Lap 49, Castroneves got a big run and made a daring pass at the outside of Turn 5. The Andretti Autosport machine lightly touched Castroneves' Team Penske entry, but the Brazilian was through, and two laps later he passed his teammate for the lead and began pulling away.
Like a champion, Hunter-Reay didn't panic.
"I was surprised I couldn't work my way by Will on better tires," Hunter-Reay said. "Helio just kept closing on those new reds that he had, and then Helio and I got into it. That could have been the end of the road for me, if I had broken the suspension.
"I knew, though, that Helio would have to run his blacks at the end," RHR said. "That's big-picture racing. It's something you learn the more you race. You get a little bit more mature with it. You get patient. You know that the race is coming back to you. I just stayed patient at that point and knew that my time would come. And it did at the end."
Castroneves and Hunter-Reay both made their final pit stops on Lap 67. The difference: Hunter-Reay had a new set of red Firestone alternate tires for the final stint, which were not only upward of a second a lap faster than the blacks, they were also remarkably durable on the recently ground Barber track surface.
The yellow No. 1 car stalked Castroneves' red, white and blue car for 10 laps before Hunter-Reay made a decisive pass for the lead. But it wasn't an easy cruise to the finish for the American champion, because two-time IndyCar Series champion Scott Dixon passed Castroneves and closed right onto Hunter-Reay's rear wing in the closing laps, eventually crossing the line just 0.636 seconds behind.
"I felt like coming into Barber that this was going to be the start of our season," Hunter-Reay said. "We had a big hole to dig out of from St. Pete [where a sticking throttle led to a DNF in the season opener].
"Several times in the offseason I said our biggest weaknesses were the permanent road courses like Barber and Sonoma, and the big superspeedways like Texas and Fontana," he said. "The guys gave me a great car today. The biggest pressure was bringing a car home that I knew was capable of winning."
It was Dixon's fourth consecutive second-place finish at Barber. The New Zealander felt his race was compromised by getting stuck behind his teammate Charlie Kimball in the middle stages of the race, when Kimball was on blacks and Dixon was on reds.
"Today was kind of a crazy race," Dixon said. "The whole day was trying to play catch-up. We had a fumble in the pits on the second stop, then we got stuck behind Charlie. He was on blacks, we were on reds.
"We switched up strategies a little bit and I think we had to gain like 12 seconds to get back to the guys that were leading, which was Helio and Hunter-Reay," he said. "The car was super fast, I think definitely one of the cars to beat. We almost needed a slightly longer race, maybe another full stint."
On his black tires, Castroneves dropped back in the final stint, but a third-place finish was still enough for the Brazilian to leave Alabama with the IndyCar Series championship lead.
"That's very exciting," Castroneves said. "When we took the lead with the black tires, with 18 or 19 laps to go, Scott and Ryan had the reds and I knew it would be very difficult to hold onto those guys. I did everything I could to brake as deep as possible, but I couldn't do much."
Kimball took fourth place, the second-best result of his IndyCar career, while Power salvaged fifth place after dropping from second to eighth at the start.
"It was a tough start for us," Power said. "We couldn't get in the right slot, and then we committed to a different strategy to hopefully get the Verizon car on the podium. We thought we had a good plan and just needed a yellow at any point after Lap 31. Unfortunately it didn't come and we fought for the fifth-place finish.
"It isn't exactly what we wanted to get out of the weekend but is still a good points day and gets us closer to the top."
It's great to be in Victory Lane, showing that last year we were for real. This was one of our weakest tracks. To be on pole and win, I hope it's a sign of things to come.
”-- Ryan Hunter-Reay
One perennial championship contender whose season went from bad to worse was four-time IndyCar titlist Dario Franchitti. On the heels of a crash and a 25th-place finish at St. Petersburg in the season opener, Franchitti notched another 25th place at Barber after a header on his Honda engine failed.
"At least this week we were moving forward and I think we were sixth at the time with two new sets of reds left, so a podium was definitely possible," Franchitti said. "So I'm not so disappointed. Last week the car was terrible all weekend and I crashed it. So we're making progress. At least the car was quick this week and we'll keep fighting."
Yet, as Hunter-Reay proved Sunday -- and St. Petersburg winner James Hinchcliffe showed two weeks ago -- the IndyCar Series is not just a Penske-Ganassi show anymore.
Hinchcliffe crapped out at Barber, falling victim to a crash in the opening laps. But if there was any doubt that Hunter-Reay was in any way not a worthy IndyCar champion, he dispelled it with his impressive victory Sunday.
"It's great to be in Victory Lane, showing that last year we were for real," Hunter-Reay said. "This was one of our weakest tracks. To be on pole and win, I hope it's a sign of things to come.
"It really shows that we're a threat every weekend. That's what we need to be to win championships. We showed that we were a threat at St. Pete. We showed we are here, at Barber. And I have a good feeling we will be at Long Beach, Sao Paulo, and Indy, too."