Ryan Hunter-Reay finally broke his streak of bad runs at Barber Motorsport Park: having never finished in the top ten in Alabama he was finally able that to rights in the best way possible on Sunday with an emphatic run from pole position all the way to victory lane in the second race of the 2013 IZOD IndyCar Series championship.
"It's just great to get a win for DHL, Sundrop, Circle K and Chevrolet back in victory lane," said the defending IZOD IndyCar Series champion after becoming the first non-Penske driver to win at Barber. "A good way to start the season."
The win undid the damage done to his title defence hopes with his early retirement in the season opener at St Petersburg. But while Hunter-Reay always looked the man to beat this week, there were several potent threats to the Andretti Autosport driver determined to make sure that they were first across the finish line ahead of the #1.
"Man, I was driving my tail off trying to stay in front of Dixon," he admitted after a hard-fought race. "Will did a good job staying in front of me on blacks, not sure how he did it. A lot of great racing out there."
Despite an untidy line-up as the green flag came out to get the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama underway, the field made it through the pinch of turns 1 and 2 without major incident. However, Will Power got pushed out wide onto the dirt which allowed Tristan Vautier to take up second place behind pole man Ryan Hunter-Reay. Marco Andretti improved to third ahead of Charlie Kimball, Justin Wilson and Scott Dixon while Power tumbled to eighth place behind Sebastian Saavedra by the time he was able to slot back in line again.
However, contact toward the compressed rear of the field saw Graham Rahal spin Oriol Servià and left debris in turn 9 which forced a quick first caution of the afternoon. If that hadn't brought out the yellow flags then James Hinchcliffe coasting to a halt at turn 3 with a problem on the left rear wheel damage certainly would have done. Race control assumed the damage was terminal and left the #27 parked behind the barrier, to Hinchcliffe's frustration as he and the team felt that the car could be repaired if they could get back to pit lane; they were promised that this would happen come the next caution period, leaving Hinchcliffe sitting and waiting for the next yellow - which never came.
"I wish I could have taken a nap, but these race cars are going around making all this noise - It's really rude of them," he said afterwards, showing he'd kept his sense of humour despite the disappointment. "We got hit on Lap 1 and when we got the call for one to go the wheel came off. I was hoping they were going to let us tow back and throw a new one on because nothing else was bent. But you dig yourself in a hole, qualify back there and these things happen. It's a weekend to forget," he added.
At the restart, Kimball made up another spot with a nice move on Andretti, while Hunter-Reay was looking every inch the reigning champion as he held on to the front by over three seconds ahead of new boy Vautier. Further back, Dixon got down the inside of Wilson on lap 13 and followed it up with a pass on Andretti two laps later to reclaim his starting position of fourth place that he had lost in those wild opening laps.
The first round of pit stops started for the back markers before lap 20, but the leaders stayed out somewhat longer with Vautier the first of the front runners to come in on lap 23 after the rookie had struggled valiantly to retain the second spot from sustained pressure applied by Kimball. With the exception of the race leader everyone else piled in two laps later, leaving Will Power momentarily running back up in second behind Hunter-Reay; that became the race lead when Hunter-Reay pitted at the end of lap 26. Clearly, the Penske team were plotting an attempt at a two-stop race for the Australian - providing he could make his fuel stretch to lap 30.
"It was a tough start for us, we couldn't get in the right slot," Power explained, describing how his loss of positions at the start of the race had forced Penske to try some out-of-the-box thinking for both its drivers from that point forward. While Penske had switched Power to a two-stop approach "to hopefully get the Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet on the podium," the team had gone to the other extreme for Helio Castroneves with a very early first-of-three stops on lap 17.
That meant that while Hunter-Reay resumed in second behind Power, Castroneves was now running up in third spot. Kimball and Dixon were next, after taking advantage of a small off-track excursion by Vautier following the pit stops. Once Power made his target distance and pitted the #12 fell back to fifth place and left Hunter-Reay back in the lead with his gap over Castroneves now a whopping eight seconds.
Having made his way up to seventh place after his disappointing qualifying performance, Dario Franchitti's race ended frustratingly on lap 43 when he cruised onto pit road with a terminal technical problem, ending his race early for the second event in succession - a dreadful start to the 2013 season for the Scot.
"We had a header problem on the [#10] and that led to some electrical issues that took out the clutch," he explained. "The guys worked real hard to get the car back together. Tough day for us."
Franchitti retired just as the next round of pit stops was under way, during which Takuma Sato hit problems when the #14 AJ Foyt car was a victim of electrical issues and struggled to get back underway again after taking on fuel, dropping him well down the running order.
"It was disappointing for the result but it was a good tough race that we fought really hard to the end," said Sato. "We had an issue on a pitstop where we lost many positions but after that we recovered and the final stop was great, so the boys did a great job."
Hunter-Reay was in surprisingly early this time in an attempt to cover off Power's two-stop approach with a super-quick second stop of his own, and the two were running dangerously close on track when Hunter-Reay came back out on track just behind the #12. But it was soon clear that the real Penske threat to Hunter-Reay's race was not Power but Castroneves, who had the measure of them both and passed the two cars ahead of him in quick succession despite sustaining contact with Hunter-Reay in the process.
"I had a little contact there with Helio," Hunter-Reay confirmed later, the donut from the sidewall of Castroneves' tyre clearly imprinted on the sidepod of the #1 Andretti Autosports car parked in victory lane. "I feel bad about it. Good thing nobody was affected by it."
After Kimball pitted from the lead it was a Castroneves/Power Penske 1-2 at the top ahead of Hunter-Reay, Kimball rejoining in fourth ahead of Scott Dixon who was followed in turn by Schmidt duo Simon Pagenaud and Tristan Vautier. Power came in for his second stop on lap 60, in the meantime having successfully helped Castroneves build up a nine second lead at the front by backing up Hunter-Reay and the rest of the field. Power rejoined down in ninth place, but with no need to stop again before the end providing he could make his red-wall soft option tyres last the distance.
The others did have to stop again, and they started streaming in six laps later; and there was disappointment for the third Penske driver AJ Allmendinger, who accidentally killed his engine and dropped to 21st because of the time lost. t was his only significant misstep in what proved to be a highly creditable maiden outing in the IndyCar Series for the NASCAR Sprint Cup driver.
"We had a good start and I thought I was pacing myself well, we could have had a top ten day without the couple breaks against us," he said. "It was a good day with a bad stall and unfortunately after that point we were saving fuel so it made it tough to make up ground.
"There are a lot of positives to take out of it," he added. "I know that I can compete with these guys and look forward to getting even better at Long Beach."
Castroneves and Hunter-Reay came in together next time by, and there were further problems in the Penske pit this time with the team struggling to engage the fuel nozzle. That wiped out Helio's lead and he barely made it back out on track ahead of Hunter-Reay. But ahead - and in the lead - he nonetheless still was, and initially he was helped further by having Justin Wilson between him and the Andretti Autosport car.
That didn't last long as Wilson himself pitted two laps later, and Hunter-Reay engaged turbo-thrusters to scythe through the gap and he was soon all over the back of the Penske #3, which was now labouring on a set of the harder tyres for its final stint: the disparity in pace between Castroneves and his soft-shod pursuer was such that the pass for the lead when it came through turns 5 and 6 on lap 76 was no surprise and the outcome a formality.
Nor did Castroneves have any time to consider a counter-attack, as he was under pressure from Scott Dixon who had himself charged through the field on soft red-walled tyres in the last few laps to put the Ganassi into third spot ahead of his junior team mate Kimball and a now-waning Power. Helio had no chance against this, his prime tyres now shot after the effort of trying to hold onto the lead, and he was made to surrender second place to the Kiwi next time through.
The only question remaining was whether Dixon had enough left in the #9 to make a play for the race win: he charged hard and closed down the gap between himself and Hunter-Reay to under a second, but in the end he ran out of time to push it further - and Hunter-Reay always looked in confident control of the situation to make it back-to-back wins for Andretti Autosport team in the first two outings of the 2013 season.
"It really was a perfect weekend," smiled team president Michael Andretti of his squad's season so far. " We got the pole in both races and the win both races and led most of the laps, you can't ask for much more than that.
"I'm really happy and proud of the whole DHL crew. They did a great job all weekend, and the whole Andretti team and it was really good," he added. "We knew we had to get it done because we had the reds and Helio had the blacks, and that's how Helio was able to get us, so we had to try to return the favour."
Dixon meanwhile was left to rue the positions he lost in that messy start, without which the victory might have been his.
"Today was a day of catch up, a big fumble at the start with Will and it backed the whole line up and we dropped to like sixth or seventh," he agreed. But later, things couldn't have been better in the latter stages of the race: "It was just one of those days where the car was really fast. I think we had the speed to win the race quite happily but we were just playing catch up all day."
The third man on the podium, Helio Castroneves, was relieved that Penske's emergency back-up plan had worked as well as it had done after the problems for the team at the start of the race.
"Today was a good day," said the Brazilian star. "That was a shame on the start, but when we changed to Plan B we just decided to go for it. It paid off and it wasn't a win but for us for the championship, it is good and right now we just have to keep going. We need to keep going and you have to put yourself out there that's great and that is what we just did today."
Castroneves now leads the IndyCar Series championship standings by nine points over Scott Dixon, with Ryan Hunter-Reay a further four points back.Full results available
.Full championship standings available