09.05.12 (via INDYCAR) - Shouts of "USA, USA" drowned the public-address announcer's remarks as Ryan Hunter-Reay joined the on-stage celebration holding an American flag stretched behind his back.
On Labor Day weekend, the 31-year-old Floridian had to work exceptionally hard for his fourth IZOD IndyCar Series victory of the season after starting 10th in the 75-lap Grand Prix of Baltimore on a 2.04-mile temporary street circuit that invited calamity at all 13 of its turns.
Somehow he avoided the pitfalls – there were nine full-course cautions – and any pratfalls in the No. 28 Team DHL/Sun Drop Citrus Soda car during a period when sections of the course glistened from a brief shower to not only take the checkered flag in the penultimate race of the season but rise back into serious championship contention.
There's a 17-point deficit to make up on front-runner Will Power in the MAV TV 500 INDYCAR World Championships at Auto Club Speedway on Sept. 15. Doable, yes, but like the Baltimore race it won't be easy.
It is the seventh consecutive year that the championship will be decided in the season finale.
Power, the championship runner-up the past two years to Dario Franchitti, clinches his first series title if he finishes first or second in the 200-lap race under the lights on the 2-mile oval. Beyond that scenario is a myriad of possibilities, including a tiebreaker coming into play ala 2006. Hunter-Reay's most direct route to the title is to win and sweep the three bonus points (1 for pole, 2 for most laps led) while Power finishes fourth or lower.
"We have a 17‑point lead and it's going to be interesting, a 500‑mile race," said Power, who started from the pole and placed sixth in the No. 12 Verizon Team Penske car at Baltimore. "Maybe it will be the first last race that I finish because every year I get crashed out. So I'm determined this time to just finish the last race and finish it as the leader of the championship."
Power led Franchitti by 11 points entering the 2011 finale. He started the race on the 1.5-mile Kentucky Speedway oval from the pole but finished 19th after contact and, combined with Franchitti's runner-up race finish, wound up 18 points back. In the 2010 finale at the Homestead-Miami Speedway, Power crashed with 57 laps left and fell short by a meager five points.
"We both understand the bad luck thing," Power said of his rival. "It can be so cruel, but that is racing. The guy who has the least amount of those sort of days wins the championship. You can be as upset as you want at the time and say it not fair and bad luck and all this, but at the end of the day it kind of all works itself out."
Hunter-Reay has four Indy car oval victories, including two this year (Milwaukee and Iowa). Power's lone oval victory came in 2011 on the 1.5-mile Texas Motor Speedway. Both test at the track they've never competed on (Power will be at Auto Club Speedway Sept. 6 and 12 and Hunter-Reay on Sept. 12).
Hunter-Reay also is a finalist in a championship subset as he's tied with Tony Kanaan for the lead in the A.J. Foyt Trophy for most points scored on ovals.
"The championship was on the line (at Baltimore) and that's really the only thing I'm fixated on winning," Hunter-Reay said. "This is all I've worked for my entire life. I haven't been nervous at all or anything. I've just been enjoying it and driving 110 percent and really getting along with the cars and feel like I'm in rhythm with the car. Hopefully, we'll have that at Fontana, too."