Late-race tangle with Andretti spoils strong outing by Hunter-Reay

Marco Andretti, left, and Ryan Hunter-Reay collide in the closing laps at Texas Motor Speedway. AP Photo/Matt Slocum

FORT WORTH, Texas -- A small crowd of well-wishers gathered around Rahal Letterman Racing's transporter Saturday night in the immediate aftermath of the Bombardier Learjet 550 at Texas Motor Speedway.

They were waiting for driver Ryan Hunter-Reay, who turned in an outstanding performance before a crash with just six laps remaining in the 228-lap contest ended his race.

"I'm never renting another movie from Blockbuster," said one man, making reference to the sponsor of Marco Andretti's car. Andretti was the other driver involved in the two-car wreck that wiped out what would have been a career-best finish in the IndyCar Series for the 27-year-old Floridian.

Hunter-Reay qualified 10th but moved up to third place after the first round of pit stops. He rarely ran any further back in the field after that in what was his most convincing performance to date in the IndyCar Series.

The two-time winner in the Champ Car World Series joined Bobby Rahal's IndyCar team in mid-2007 and helped RLR end the season on a high note with a series of top-seven finishes.

As Saturday night's Texas race drew to a close, Andretti and Hunter-Reay got together entering Turn 3 on the ultra-fast TMS oval, sending both Dallara-Hondas into the SAFER Barrier. Andretti got the worst of it physically, limping away with bruised knees and an injured right foot.

But Hunter-Reay was hurting too as he struggled to find the words to describe what had happened.

"It's real unfortunate," he said quietly. "I had been running side by side with all the frontrunners all night. Marco just crowded me on the way in there. I unfortunately should have just held my line and driven into him. We would have ended up the same way. But I went down onto the apron trying to avoid him."

Replays showed the cars were very close entering Turn 3, but when Hunter-Reay touched the white line, the rear of his car got unstable and the No. 17 Ethanol council-sponsored car drifted up in to Andretti's No. 26 machine operated by Andretti Green Racing.

"There wasn't even a car width there for me," said Hunter-Reay, who ended up 20th, one spot behind Andretti. "The thing is, had he kept coming down on the straightaway, that would have told me he wanted the inside line and I would have let it go. But he left that door open and then he just turned in pretty early.

"It's a racing incident at 220 mph and it's unfortunate," he continued. "I really feel that had I not been side by side with Marco, I would have been side by side with Dixon and I would have won or finished second in that race."

Not surprisingly, Andretti disputed Hunter-Reay's version of events.

"I feel kind of bad for both of us," he said. "But the fact is there are some guys you can run close with and some guys you can't. He clearly hit the white line and that's that.

"We ran well today, but to me that doesn't matter," Andretti added. "We need to bring home results."

RHR's crash, combined with some bad luck for Vitor Meira and Panther Racing, meant that the IndyCar Series' big three teams (Ganassi Racing, Team Penske and AGR) once again controlled the top six finishing positions.

Meira finished seventh, a lap down after the alternate pit stop strategy that put him in position to lead 38 laps and contend for the win ended up backfiring on the Panther crew.

A Lap 213 full-course caution for Enrique Bernoldi's crash left Meira a lap down just moments after he made his final pit stop. The yellow allowed the rest of the leaders to make it to the finish without stopping again.

"Our car was just awesome when we were running up front," Meira reported. "The team made one fuel-only stop early in the race, so we were about 10 laps off sequence and I was pulling away."

The Andretti/Hunter-Reay crash allowed Meira to move up to seventh place at the flag. "This is another good race for us and another step forward," he said. "The confidence level at Panther is really, really high right now."

Although the race ended with him sitting in the infield medical center, Hunter-Reay took encouragement from Rahal Letterman's effort as well.

"I'm very positive about what we can do, but I don't think we're going to roll out in the top three every weekend," he said. "It's just so hard to break through in this series. Finally we had a breakthrough, but I just can't catch a break."

John Oreovicz covers open-wheel racing for National Speed Sport News and ESPN.com.