- John Oreovicz, Autos, Open-Wheel
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WEST ALLIS, Wis. -- One year ago, Ryan Hunter-Reay's charge toward his first IZOD IndyCar Series championship began at the Milwaukee Mile.
RHR arrived at the famous venue on the heels of a DNF at Texas Motor Speedway, lying seventh in the 2012 IndyCar standings, 75 points behind series leader Will Power.
Victory in the 2012 Milwaukee IndyFest lifted Hunter-Reay to fourth in the points, and it also kick-started a run of three consecutive midseason race wins that established him at the top of the standings. A hard-fought battle with Power ensued down the stretch, ending with Hunter-Reay as the first American Indy car champion in six years.
Milwaukee has always been a strong track for Hunter-Reay, and he enters this year's IndyFest as a strong favorite to record his third race win on the century-old mile oval.
"There is no place like the Milwaukee Mile," Hunter-Reay said. "It's a hard place to get right, and when you do, it's so rewarding. It's been a place in my career that has meant a lot to me; I've had some pretty breakthrough performances in my career there, and I've also been on the other side of it where we just couldn't get it right and struggled. So I have a lot of respect for it for that reason.
"I think if you ask any other Indy car driver out there, they'll say it's probably one of the most fun ovals you'll go to, and at the same time, one of the toughest to get right."
Hunter-Reay scored the most dominant race win in the history of Indy car racing by leading all 250 laps of a Champ Car-sanctioned race at The Mile in 2004.
But he has also struggled at the flat mile, where car handling and the ability to cut decisively through traffic are the keys to victory.
Not surprisingly, the IndyCar Series' top three teams have dominated the action at Milwaukee over the years. But Hunter-Reay was driving for the comparatively small HVM Racing team when he scored his flag-to-flag win in 2004.
Hunter-Reay's Andretti Autosport team has won four of the past eight Indy car races at The Mile, but Target Ganassi Racing has claimed two of the last three. Team Penske is the most successful team of all time at Milwaukee, with seven wins dating to open-wheel legend Rick Mears' first-ever Indy car victory in the June 1978 race.
"I think you'll see the usual players at Milwaukee, the usual teams that are quick," Hunter-Reay said. "Then we're sure to have some surprises, as we have the whole season. So I think any one of 10 or 11 drivers could win at Milwaukee this weekend."
There have been eight winners in the nine IndyCar races to date this season, with Andretti Autosport's James Hinchcliffe the only two-time winner (St. Petersburg and Brazil).
Team Penske's Helio Castroneves, winner of the most recent IndyCar race last weekend at Texas Motor Speedway, currently holds a 22-point lead in the point standings over Hunter-Reay's teammate Marco Andretti. Hunter-Reay is third in points, 27 behind Castroneves.
The Brazilian is a three-time fastest qualifier at Milwaukee, including the first pole position of his Indy car career back in 1999. But he's never broken through for a race win.
"We always seem to qualify well in Milwaukee in the Team Penske car and I love racing there with all of the history," Castroneves said. "Hopefully we can continue our good momentum from Texas and have a good run at Milwaukee. It would be great to bring home a top-5 finish to make sure we keep pushing for the championship."
Marco Andretti took the pole at Milwaukee in 2011 and is looking to add to his family's record of success at the venue. Mario Andretti won four times at The Mile between 1966 and 1985, while Andretti Autosport team owner Michael scored five wins there as a driver and presided over additional team wins by Dario Franchitti (2004) and Tony Kanaan (2006-07).
Indianapolis 500 winner Kanaan, who now drives for KV Racing Technology, and Franchitti (Target Chip Ganassi Racing) are the modern masters of Milwaukee. Both are two-time winners; Franchitti has finished lower than sixth only once since 2004 (last year, when he started from the pole but crashed late in the race), while Kanaan has eight top-10 finishes in his past 10 Milwaukee starts, including six top-5s.
Andretti Sports Marketing is serving as the Milwaukee race promoter for the second year.
"Personally, this event is important to me because I've had such great times there with my career as a driver and team owner," Andretti said. "But I also think it's very important to Indy car racing because it's second only to Indy with history. It's the oldest racetrack in the world; there is tons and tons of history at the track, so I think it's quite important for the series to be there.
"We're excited about it," he added. "Ticket sales seem to be a bit ahead of last year, and there are a lot of exciting things going on out there this weekend."
The IndyCar Series is nearing the end of an exhausting stretch of eight consecutive weekends of action, dating to the race in Sao Paulo, Brazil in early May. After the Milwaukee race on Saturday, the series heads to Iowa Speedway for a 250-lap contest next Sunday.
Ryan Briscoe has again been tapped to drive the No. 4 Panther Racing entry this weekend. The team plans to audition several drivers over the balance of the season, including Briscoe and Oriol Servia, before deciding upon a permanent driver for 2014 and beyond.