Ryan Hunter-Reay simply dominant
The 2013 IndyCar season is just reaching the halfway point, with nine races completed from a 19-race campaign. And Hunter-Reay is right in the thick of things again; he trails championship leader Helio Castroneves by 16 points and is fresh off a win at the Milwaukee IndyFest 250.
But those numbers don't demonstrate how thoroughly and completely Hunter-Reay has dominated the IndyCar Series over the past calendar year to emerge as the driver to beat. These statistics, which run from Milwaukee 2012 through Milwaukee 2013, do:
1. Ryan Hunter-Reay, 570 points, six wins
2. Helio Castroneves, 527 points, two wins
3. Scott Dixon, 433 points, one win
4. Marco Andretti, 409 points
5. Tony Kanaan, 406 points, one win
6. Simon Pagenaud, 400 points, one win
7. Will Power, 397 points
8. Takuma Sato, 380 points, one win
9. Dario Franchitti, 363 points
10. James Hinchcliffe, 356 points, two wins
11. Graham Rahal, 333 points
12. Justin Wilson, 329 points
13. Ed Carpenter, 314 points, one win
14. E.J. Viso, 309 points
15. Charlie Kimball, 303 points
You'd have to go back to 2004 (Kanaan) and '05 (Dan Wheldon) to find that kind of victory margin in a championship that has been decided by 17 points or less for the past seven years.
Factor out Castroneves, who is in the midst of the most consistent phase of his long Indy car career, and Hunter-Reay's superiority is even more obvious.
Just ask Team Penske's Will Power, who last year headed into Milwaukee with a comfortable championship lead. Since then, he's gone winless while Hunter-Reay has outscored him by 173 points.
Power drove arguably the best oval race of his career Saturday, to finish third behind Hunter-Reay and Castroneves. And he's still 15 points further behind the flying American.
"Yeah, the points lead is pretty far away right now," Power admitted. "Our focus is just every weekend having solid results.
"For sure, once we get to Toronto, there's a bunch of street and road courses that have been my strength in the past. We'll see how it plays out. But that's a pretty big deficit to chase down right now. It's not impossible. It's mathematically possible, and if you keep pushing, anything can happen."
Power, who ranks 11th in the 2013 standings, 111 markers behind series leader (and Penske teammate) Castroneves, forgot to acknowledge that Hunter-Reay is pretty darn good at road and street courses as well.
RHR won at Toronto last year, and also on the Baltimore street course, in what proved to be the crucial round in terms of his push to the title. This year, his other race win came on the undulating Barber Motorsports Park road course.
"He's definitely in his prime, there's no question about it," remarked Hunter-Reay's team owner, Michael Andretti. "He's at the perfect age . He's got all the experience he needs. He knows exactly what he needs in a race car. He knows what he needs when he's at certain positions in the race.
"Those are the things you just learn through experience. Those are things that win you championships."
It's still difficult to fathom that Hunter-Reay has gone from a journeyman to a champion in barely the space of two years. He showed a lot of promise coming up through the open-wheel formula car ranks, and he won an Indy car race as a rookie in the CART-sanctioned series in 2003.
His love for the Milwaukee Mile was already on display in 2004, when he led all 250 laps in the most one-sided victory in the long history of the sport. But in the confused world of American open-wheel racing, Hunter-Reay didn't catch on with a top-level team until he joined forces with Andretti Autosport in 2010.
Running without a contract on a race-by-race basis, Hunter-Reay posted a second-place finish in Brazil and a victory in Long Beach, enough to motivate Andretti to do whatever was necessary to keep his new star driver on board.
Andretti knew that Hunter-Reay was the key to recreating the kind of chemistry and camaraderie in his team that it enjoyed when Wheldon and Kanaan were teamed with Bryan Herta and Dario Franchitti nearly a decade ago. Still, it took until the middle of 2011 before Hunter-Reay really got comfortable in the team leader role and the results started coming.
"Ryan needed to have races where he didn't have mistakes," Andretti said. "I'd say in the middle of 2011, from then on it just clicked for him. I think those are things that happen with experience. All of a sudden he just knew when he needed to be aggressive and when he didn't.
"That's where it really clicked for me with Ryan -- from the middle of '11, he just started to see the bigger picture better. I feel good about where we are. I think we're coming up to a lot of strong tracks for us, and hopefully history will repeat itself."
Hunter-Reay's performance has inspired and lifted the entire Andretti team. His teammates, Marco Andretti in particular, credit RHR for helping them to raise their game.
A year ago, Marco Andretti lay 17th in the standings. This year, he arrived at Milwaukee tied for the points lead and claimed pole position, only for a DNF in the race to drop him to third in the standings.
AA's James Hinchcliffe and Hunter-Reay are the only multiple race winners in the IndyCar Series this year, and new recruit EJ Viso is enjoying his best Indy car campaign.
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Not surprisingly, Hunter-Reay plays down his achievements and deflects the credit to his team.
"In sports, when you get into a momentum or a rhythm, it's not something you can put a price tag on or finger on," he said. "It just happens. Then it kind of saturates the team with this feeling that, 'Hey, we can get it done. If we perform to our best, to our potential, we can absolutely win races.'
"That has carried over week in, week out," Hunter-Reay continued. "We were able to win more races than anybody else in the last year, and all started here last year. Andretti has great cars. You put the two together, hopefully it comes out the way we want."
Michael Andretti was often questioned for sticking with the only four-car team in the IndyCar Series; from 2008-2010, when the working relations between teammates including Kanaan and Danica Patrick turned rancorous, Andretti Autosport struggled mightily. But personnel changes, led by Hunter-Reay, restored the competitiveness of the organization, and since the start of 2012, it's put the rest of the field including the Penske and Ganassi teams to shame.
"The engineering staff is doing a great job developing things in the offseason," Hunter-Reay said. "It comes back to the team atmosphere. When you have a good team atmosphere, four cars all pushing together in the same direction, it makes a massive difference. You're getting four times the amount of data in one session. That's a big deal."
Hunter-Reay isn't leading the IndyCar Series standings as the tour heads to Iowa Speedway for the second of three consecutive oval races.
But now everybody knows he's the championship favorite.
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