Will Power might have exited the race early even before the sun set on the MAVTV 500 IndyCar World Championship season finale night race at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, California, but that ended up being just the trigger for almost three hours of white-knuckle, nailbiting action.
Power's early exit left Ryan Hunter-Reay needing to finish the race in fifth place or better, and a single mistake or technical glitch over the rest of the evening would have been the end of his hopes and dreams. At times, disaster was literally inches away, and for long stretches it looked like fifth place was simply out of his reach.
The final climax of the race came in an unlikely rush of drama that would scarcely be believable if it was scripted by Hollywood. Watching from the sidelines, Will Power could only stand and wait and watch as his fate was decided ...
At the start of the race, Marco Andretti had led the field away from pole position alongside Ryan Briscoe, getting a good jump on the field only to have Tony Kanaan blast out of turn 2 and force his way past down the backstretch. Kanaan's pace couldn't last and soon Andretti was back alongside, and a couple of laps later the leaders were joined by JR Hildebrand running an incredibly high line and absolutely making it work, soon taking the lead for himself and pulling out several car lengths over the others.
Behind the leaders, several drivers were making gains from artificially low starting positions due to the assorted penalties, but the early gainers didn't include the championship contenders. Will Power sank back half a dozen spots in the early laps and found himself running immediately behind Ryan Hunter-Reay on the track, who had himself made up only a modest couple of spots and was living dangerously just inches away from the wall.
AJ Foyt Racing stand-in Wade Cunningham became the first driver to go a lap down on the track on lap 23, Simona de Silvestro long since having exited to pit lane in her perennially under-performing HVM-Lotus, while Marco Andretti became the first routine visitor to the pits when tyre wear saw him losing multiple positions - a situation that wasn't helped by a less than trouble-free pit stop.
Hildebrand came in for his tyres and fuel on lap 36 of the 250-lap event along with Rubens Barrichello and an overheating Sebastian Saavedra, signalling a flood of cars in over the ensuing laps including Ryan Hunter-Reay in from 16th position and Will Power following a couple of laps later. The Honda cars generally outlasted their Chevrolet rivals and Takuma Sato and Josef Newgarden were the final cars to come onto pit road in the sequence, although a technical problem would force Newgarden to return for repairs and put him six laps off the lead by the time he was able to resume.
With Hildebrand restored to the lead, the race seemed to have settled into a calm routine. When that changed, it was very sudden: Will Power was still running behind Ryan Hunter-Reay, keeping a watchful strategic eye on him, but was also increasingly aware of the race leader closing up behind them and threatening to put them both a lap down. That prompted Power to compete for the position, and on lap 56 he had managed to take the spot away from Hunter-Reay - when suddenly the #12 caught a seam, got loose in turn 2 and the rear end started a slow, inevitable spin outwards. He would have known that the hit against the SAFER barrier was inevitable and just seconds away.
"My team was pushing me to get around him, and it was just a mistake - just a mistake," said Power. "You can't make mistakes like that. I had understeer all night, I was having to lift, half a lane lower than I was before and caught a seam, and, yeah. Man, I don't know what to say, it's depressing."
The car was wrecked; the driver, fortunately, completely unharmed. But now Will Power's championship hopes were completely out of his own hands - although by no means gone. Thanks to his 17pt lead in the championship standings he'd held coming into the event, Power still had the lead in the championship despite being out of the race. Hunter-Reay had to finish, and moreover finish in sixth place or better to claim enough the points to overhaul Power and clinch the title. Anything could happen yet: Hunter-Reay had already come within inches of being wiped out by the wrecking Penske car right then and there on lap 56.
"I don't know how close it was," said Hunter-Reay after the race finished. "He was right next to me and I saw him lose it, so I bet it was pretty close. He was joking around that he would take me out if I was next to him - and he almost did!"
The shadows were beginning to stretch over the circuit with the sun dipping further and further below the level of the grandstands, as the green flag came out again on lap 66 for a single file restart that soon scattered multi-wide across the circuit. Carpenter had the jump on Hildebrand, while Rubens Barrichello was up to third place alongside fellow F1 refugee Takuma Sato. Tony Kanaan and Scott Dixon rounded out the top six, while Hunter-Reay was struggling to cling on to a top ten spot.
Hildebrand's excellent run at the front came to an end minutes later on lap 74 when the #4 car abruptly slowed on the backstretch with suspension damage, having pushed the high-line just that little bit too far in his battle for the lead with Carpenter.
"I was running high and had to pedal it while Ed stayed flat and drove straight through," said Hildebrand later. "I felt like I had the pace to get back by him, but just by the nature of the two lines we were running I was getting a lot of dirty air on the exit of the corners ... I could see that he was struggling a little bit, but I was the one that ended up getting caught out. Massively frustrating deal: I felt we had a car that was going to finish in the top five and I felt like we had a shot at winning this deal."
The Panther crew managed to effect repairs under the ensuing caution, which was lengthened when Katherine Legge inadvertently rear-ended Justin Wilson's car and caused the Dale Coyne Racing machine to expire on the spot.
"It's so frustrating to be taken out of the race like that," rued Wilson. "There was a big stack-up in front of me and I just got rammed from behind. Unfortunately that damaged the gearbox so that we couldn't get a gear and the clutch wouldn't work either, so that was the end of our race."
Carpenter resumed the lead at the restart ahead of Scott Dixon and Marco Andretti, but significantly Ryan Hunter-Reay was now up in fourth place - just what he needed to clinch the title from Power. The Penske squad recognised the danger and leapt into action, with Ryan Briscoe and Helio Castroneves sent flying in to pass both of the Andretti Autosport cars and force Hunter-Reay back down to sixth place. But the Penske team needed more.
Back in the Penske garage, it was all hands on deck as the pit crew worked feverishly to bolt an entire new back end onto the crumpled #12 car and get Power back out again, in the hope of making up a couple of spots in the final results that could yet prove crucial in the title battle. A bemused Power reappeared in his street clothes and was hustled away to get back into his fire suit: this was by no means over yet.
In the meantime, there was another caution came out on lap 108 for Rubens Barrichello's engine blowing up putting an end to a fine run that he's clearly been enjoying: "I had a good car at the beginning and it was all going really well, but unfortunately it ended literally in fumes," Barrichello said. "I enjoyed being back on ovals and at Fontana. I need to thank my crew for their hard work this year and look forward to next year."
That set up a new round of pit stops, and for Andretti Autosport there was a big decision to come: Hunter-Reay had been complaining of increasing vibration in the #28 impairing his speed, and the concern was that it was down to a broken right rear shock absorber that would mean a costly delay on pit road to change. This time around the team crossed their fingers and hoped that a new set of tyres would be sufficient to address the problem, and sent their man back on his way with just a turn of extra front wing to compensate for the cooling conditions now that night time was firmly setting in.
Ed Carpenter held off an attack on the high side from Tony Kanaan at the green flag to resume at the head of the race, with Ganassi team mates Dario Franchitti and Scott Dixon competing for the honour of third place. There were brushes with the wall for Graham Rahal and James Hinchcliffe, before Hinchcliffe's day was fatally ruined by a penalty for jumping the latest restart
Dixon broke through at the front to snatch the lead at the halfway point of the race, just as the resurrected #12 car of Will Power had emerged from the garage and headed back out onto the track. Of course it was 69 laps down and could only run a few under-speed laps before being told to park by race control, but those laps were crucial in that they boosted Power ahead of the already-retired EJ Viso in the positions and meant that Ryan Hunter-Reay now had to finish fifth rather than sixth if he was to steal the title from them. Would it really come down to that, one position either way at the end of 500 miles?
Hunter-Reay's night wasn't improved by having the lapped Josef Newgarden buzzing around him on the track for an extended period, especially when Hunter-Reay himself couldn't afford to fight back and get drawn into a careless accident that could cost him the title.
Ahead, Dixon and Kanaan had resumed their battle for the lead after the latest round of pit stops ahead of Castroneves, Sato, Carpenter and Tagliani: Hunter-Reay had been left scrapping with Dario Franchitti to hold on to seventh position, and he didn't seem to have the pace to inch his way forward to where he needed to be. Was it all slipping through his fingers?
What he needed was a yellow, and of all teams it was Penske that provided one on lap 181 when Ryan Briscoe got loose and tapped against the wall in turn 4.
"At the end of the second stint there with Will's crash in turn two we ran over his wing and I think it might have damaged our diffuser and we just struggled from then on throughout the night," explained Briscoe of his uncharacteristic mishap. "It was a disappointing result, the #2 IZOD car was running really well at the start of the race."
Dixon had now been handed the lead for the restart after Kanaan had a lengthy stop to fix a flapping loose engine cowling, and the Kiwi was left in a fierce duel with a revived Carpenter over the next half dozen laps until the matter was finally resolved in Carpenter's favour with 50 to go.
Dixon faded away and left a new generation of challengers for Carpenter to face led by Alex Tagliani and Takuma Sato. Tagliani took over the lead from Carpenter on lap 204 with Sato snapping at Carpenter's heels and the Ganassi duo of Franchitti and Dixon watching on: Hunter-Reay meanwhile was now in sixth place, still one position too low to wrest the championship from Power. Even if a yellow came out, did Hunter-Reay have the pace in his car to capitalise on the opportunity?
A final round of pit stops with 25 laps concluded with Tagliani back in front with Sato and Carpenter in hot pursuit and Hunter-Reay still stuck in sixth place behind the Ganassi pair. It seemed his final gambit was to hope that one or more cars in front would hit problems or crash out and hand him the position he needed to win the title. Could it possibly happen?
Now watching on helplessly from the pit wall, Will Power could only hope and pray. "There were definitely times there where it was looking hopeful!" he admitted to the reporters and cameramen following every minute of his agony.
On lap 229, it happened: the caution that Hunter-Reay needed and Power feared materialised when the engine on Alex Tagliani's car blew, bringing out the yellows and pushing Hunter-Reay up into the magical fifth position. Now the question was whether he could keep it at the restart. Anyone not already on the edge of their seats was very definitely assuming the position, as the entire 2012 season came down to the next few minutes.
Hunter-Reay could no longer afford to play it safe: if he held back he'd get swamped by any number of cars from behind and his title hopes would be finished, so he was forced to plunge into a three-wide battle with Kanaan and Dixon for position - which he won, leaving him locked right up on the back of Takuma Sato for several laps until he was able to finally dispense with him as well and claim third place.
Behind Hunter-Reay, his team mate Marco Andretti had taken on fresh tyres under the caution and moved up into position as Hunter-Reay's wingman, protecting his rear from any attacks. All they had to do was hang on for another ten laps and the title would be theirs. Surely nothing was doing to throw the dice into the air again this close to home?
Then Tony Kanaan was careering across the track and into the wall: suspension damage had left him a passenger right to the scene of the accident at turn 4, and put the race under yellow once more.
"I was trying to go for it," he said. "I had nothing to lose. I was trying to win the oval championship. I got caught in the middle of traffic and just lost it. It's a shame, we had a strong car when I was in front. It is what it is. Let's move on and get ready for next year."
With under ten laps remaining it seemed that this might be it, the race would end under yellow, in which case Hunter-Reay's current third position would be protected right through to the chequered flag. Instead, race director Beaux Barfield opted to throw a red flag to enable the track to be cleaned up, the near-equivalent to a NASCAR green-white-chequered finish.
Even though the option had been discussed in briefings before the race, it was clear that some - most expressively team owner Michael Andretti - were verging on incandescent at the thought of the race being stolen from them because of this ad hoc
innovation. But there was no point arguing: the team and their driver would have to grit their teeth and face one last restart and hope that they could hold it together.
When the green flag out, Hunter-Reay had to pick and choose his battles very carefully: fight too hard for positions he didn't need and his race could end up in last lap disaster. Give places up too easily and he could get swamped by a rush of traffic and end up outside the top five with no time to rally back, and lose the title that way.
He had no intention of fighting Carpenter for the lead, or even the Ganassi pair who were taking hold of the rest of the podium positions. He wouldn't even have minded being able to forego the wheel-to-wheel battle with Takuma Sato for fourth place, but there was too much danger brewing from behind: Graham Rahal was bearing down, and then far worse was closing up behind as the Penske attack squad of Helio Castroneves and Ryan Briscoe flew down the track determined to pass Hunter-Reay at all costs if it would hand their team mate the championship.
So Hunter-Reay was forced into a highly risky battle with Sato, perhaps not a driver known as one of the most level-headed and calm of competitors. He finally managed to pull clear of the Rahal Letterman Lanigan car - and then Sato spun, took up off the track and hit the wall with a big impact at the start of the final lap.
"The end of the race was a real shame," said Sato of his accident, perhaps thinking back to his similar last lap exit from the Indy 500 just a few months ago. "I was side-by-side with Ryan through Turns 1 and 2 and I suddenly lost the back end on the final lap. I feel sorry for the guys who have done a great job over the course of the weekend and also the whole year really. It was a fantastic season so it is a real shame to finish this way. It was an exciting race."
Once again, Hunter-Reay had escaped disaster by mere inches: he was still running and unscathed. The yellows were out, and he was - where? What position? Was it still good enough for the title or had too many cars come flying past him in the maelstrom?
Somewhere up ahead, Ed Carpenter was claiming the chequered flag, finishing the 2012 season as he had the previous one - with a brilliant oval win. For now, unfairly after such a brilliant drive, hardly anyone noticed.
Also up ahead, Dario Franchitti and Scott Dixon claiming second and third, the best Ganassi result since May's Indianapolis 500. Again, this wasn't what gripped people's attention right now.
Also up ahead ... Wait. No one. That was it. Hunter-Reay was fourth, and wasn't fourth place good enough to clinch the title? Surely it was? That's
what everyone was looking at.
It took a few minutes to be sure, for it to really sink in, and even as the celebrations started and the presentation ceremony got underway, there was a look in the eyes of Ryan Hunter-Reay and Michael Andretti that asked: are we sure? Really? Is this actually happening?
Sadly, one look into the face of Will Power was enough to confirm the reality of defeat as seen from the Penske corner. They'd been cruelly deprived of the title once again, even failed to finish the last race of the season yet again. It was almost too much to bear, although Power did it with class and dignity that belied how much it was surely hurting inside.
"At the end of the day, Hunter-Reay is definitely a deserving champion. A real fighter. Probably as far as all around drivers go, he's probably the best in the series because he wins in each discipline," said Power of the new champion.
As for himself: "Three years winning the road course championship quite convincingly, so it's very obvious where I lack," he admitted. "Once again the ovals, three crashes on three of the ovals this year, that's a massive hit in the points."
All the time over in victory lane, the news was finally sinking in and Ryan Hunter-Reay was beginning to celebrate. The first American winner of the IndyCar championship since Sam Hornish Jr. achieved it in 2006, and Hunter-Reay had certainly done it in style - and in one helluva race to finish the 2012 season.
"This hasn't sunk in yet - I just drove 500 miles for my life, I can't believe we're IndyCar champions. I can't even believe this!" he gasped as he climbed out of the cockpit of the #28. "My dream has come true. This is unbelievable."
He said that it really had been as hard work and nerve-racking as it has looked, and that he hadn't been holding anything back or sandbagging for the final laps but really appeared quite doomed in the early stages. "It was team effort right there. We were struggling all weekend. I didn't want to let anyone really know about it. We were really in the woods," he said. "I didn't think we had it for the first half of the race and we kept getting it better and better and better."
The brief stoppage near the end had sent stress levels through the roof in the final minutes: "The red flag, that really got the nerves going. Sitting in pit lane, I knew the tyres would take in a heat cycle and that it would slide around a lot. Everybody raced tough, but they raced clean."
"It was a crazy, crazy night," added team owner Michael Andretti. "That's exactly what we told him going into the race, this is going to be a crazy race. It actually played out exactly the way I thought it would because we knew it was going to be tough.
"Hats off to the Penske guys, they made our lives more miserable!" he added. "I was hoping that we'd be winning and Will finished fourth, but when Will did crash, it opened up the opportunity for us ... We went for it."
With one American driver winning the title and another winning the race, Andretti was particularly happy about what this might mean for a resurgence of open wheel racing in the US.
"I think it's great when an American beats the best in the world, and that's what happened," he said. "That's what make it's mean something. If it was just all Americans out there, then it doesn't mean as much, but when an American can beat all these other great drivers from different countries, it's a great thing.
"I'm very proud to be an American. I'm very proud of Ryan," he said, as the champagne flowed and the celebrations began. "I've got to say that this is probably the sweetest one of all. To come back through the adversity that the team has gone through the last few years and to bring it back and be back on top just makes me feel so good and so proud of everybody here at the Andretti team."Full race results
Final IZOD IndyCar Series championship standings