NEWTON, Iowa -- They say the key to winning a championship is getting the maximum out of bad days.
Just past the halfway point of the 2013 campaign, Helio Castroneves and Ryan Hunter-Reay have separated themselves from the rest of their IZOD IndyCar Series competition. Both men took a back seat to James Hinchcliffe on Sunday in the Iowa Corn Indy 250, but the results -- particularly in Hunter-Reay's case -- were a lot better than they could have been. Because of that, HCN and RHR are still the heavy championship favorites as the IndyCar season heads into the final nine of 19 races.
Take Castroneves first. Helio arrived at Iowa Speedway with a 16-point lead over Hunter-Reay. He actually increased that advantage by dominating the Saturday action, claiming the nine points on offer by setting a track record of 185.687 mph and leading his heat race from start to finish to secure pole position.
Castroneves seemed antsy at the post-qualifying news conference, and the reason soon became clear: Thanks to the IndyCar Series' confusing and controversial engine management rules, Castroneves faced an engine change and a mandatory 10-place grid penalty. The pole winner would start the feature 11th.
Still, that seemed better than Hunter-Reay, who missed a portion of the only practice session, qualified poorly and struggled in his heat race. "We gave up points today," he lamented then. "An important day, and we were sitting on our thumbs and just missed it."
Yet after the confusion of three heat races and four engine-change penalties was sorted out, Hunter-Reay lined up right next to Castroneves on the outside of the sixth row. The American ran ahead of his rival in the opening laps, but suffered a setback when he broke his front wing by hitting the back of Graham Rahal's car while trying to make a pass.
A full-course caution to retrieve the debris allowed the DHL crew to change the nose without losing a lap. From there, the defending Iowa race and IndyCar Series champion dug in and produced a championship-worthy drive. He worked his way from 18th place to eighth over the course of a long stretch of green-flag racing from Lap 52 to 137, and gained three more places on restarts from a pair of midrace cautions. He made it all the way up to second place with 30 laps to go, but couldn't catch his dominant teammate Hinchcliffe.
"A really good day, good points to finish second after being dead last," Hunter-Reay said. "And yesterday we had a nightmare of a day as well. So [we were] really happy that we were able to bring the No. 1 DHL Chevy home in second.
"I would have liked to repeat, but once again the Andretti cars were the cars to beat here at Iowa."
After dominating qualifying, Castroneves and his Penske Racing teammate Will Power were less effective on race day. Castroneves fared better, challenging for the top five on occasion but ultimately taking eighth place.
In a season when he has demonstrated more consistency than at any time in his career, the patient drive showed why Castroneves is in position to finally earn an IndyCar Series championship. Factoring in the points he scored for qualifying, he lost only seven points from his championship lead over Hunter-Reay, which now stands at nine points.
"When they told me I came in eighth, I was like 'What?' Castroneves said. "I certainly felt we had a better car than that. I guess in traffic we got held up coming in and out of the pits, which cost us some positions.
"The Hitachi car really came alive with about 50 laps to go, and it felt great," he added. "Maybe it was a little too late for us. But we still have the points lead, and we will look for a better result in Pocono."
Marco Andretti finished right behind Castroneves, dropping another five points to lie 55 points back. But a more credible championship threat may lie in the form of Hinchcliffe, whose third win of this breakout season vaulted him from ninth to fourth in the IndyCar Series standings, 66 points out of first.
Andretti Autosport has re-emerged as IndyCar's dominant team, with five race wins this year and three of the top four drivers in the standings.
And while Castroneves and Hunter-Reay have separated themselves from the pack, it's likely that at least one other Andretti driver will be part of the mix down the stretch.
"I would like to think that we are all going to run each other fair and we are going to continue to work as well together as we can," Hinchcliffe said. "You have to remember, it's not just us in this championship. And if we start battling each other internally off-track, then the other guys are going to catch up and pass us, and then we are fighting over second, third and fourth. That's not what we want to do.
"We want to back up Ryan's championship last year and bring another one home for Andretti Autosport, and I think we all know that the team is greater than one guy and we all have to work together to try and achieve that."
Marco Andretti often talks about how having Hunter-Reay as a teammate has helped him learn and raise his game. Hinchcliffe has the same opportunity; if he can turn his really bad days into eighth-place finishes like Castroneves and Hunter-Reay have learned to do through experience, he'll be right there in the championship reckoning.
"He's had a weird year, for sure, where he's been feast or famine," observed team owner Michael Andretti. "He either wins or he has problems. But he knows he's capable of winning, and if he can just hopefully get through all his problems and continue to do what he's doing, I think he has a good shot at the championship."
Having three drivers in the championship reckoning is a good problem for Andretti to have, and he can take pride in helping fourth driver E.J. Viso produce some of the best performances of his IndyCar Series career.
"It's just been a great year," Andretti said. "We work really hard, and all that hard work is paying off. We are working great as a team. All four cars are communicating very well, and all four drivers and engineers and everything. That's where we are getting our results, and it's been awesome. If we can finish the year without any problems with the cars, I think one of them has a chance at winning the championship.
"Having said that, a guy like Helio, with his experience and everything, it's going to be really difficult," Andretti added. "He's going to make it go right down to the wire, I can assure you. But it's always nice to have more than one bullet in the gun, and right now we have three real legitimate shots at winning the championship."