It was victory here in 2012 that truly ignited Ryan Hunter-Reay's ultimately successful IZOD IndyCar Series championship campaign, and he'll be hoping that a second consecutive win at the Milwaukee Mile augurs well for the same outcome in 2013. And on the evidence of this weekend's race, he'll be a hard man for his rivals to stop.
As a team, Andretti Autosport had already been the class of the field in qualifying with all four entries starting the race from the top five. After heading all the track sessions on Friday, polesitter Marco Andretti duly led his team mate James Hinchcliffe to the green flag for the start of the now 250-lap Saturday afternoon race at the Milwaukee Mile, but it was Hunter-Reay surging from fourth place round the outside who had the best start, making it an all-Andretti three-wide battle at the starting line.
Marco was able to settle into the lead and rebuffed a couple of no-holds-barred attempts by Hunter-Reay to take the lead, but Hinchcliffe lost out in that battle and quickly also dropped a further spot to Will Power, but he was able to resist Tony Kanaan's attack for fourth place as the race started to find an initial rhythm.
Shortly after Justin Wilson had a scary moment keeping his #19 Dale Coyne Racing car off the wall, Simona de Silvestro spun out on lap 22 and put the KV Racing car into light light contact with the outside wall at turn 4 to trigger the first caution of the day.
"The car was loose from the start and then it just took off," the Swiss driver explained. "We made contact with the wall. The guys changed the rear wing and we went back out, but I don't know if it was damage from the crash or what, but it really wasn't drivable after that."
None of the leaders were tempted into breaking their three-stop strategy plans but nine cars further back pitted, including Helio Castroneves and Josef Newgarden. Justin Wilson was also in to have his early handling problems sorted out as soon as possible, while fellow Brit Dario Franchitti also had little to lose by pitting early after starting from the back of the grid following an engine change penalty.
The restart on lap 28 was quickly aborted by a spin for Alex Tagliani which also saw Graham Rahal rear-end his Rahal Letterman Lanigan team mate James Jakes as everyone managed to avoid the #78. The next restart on lap 33 went more smoothly, with Marco once again able to hold off Hunter-Reay to keep the lead, while Hinchcliffe once again struggled to get up to speed and lost a further spot, this time to his other team mate EJ Viso.
The mixture of pit strategies highlighted whose car was in a strong state at this early stage of the race, and whose was not: among the early stoppers quickly moving forward were AJ Foyt Racing's Takuma Sato (rapidly back into the top ten), Castroneves and Newgarden; while those who had stayed out and were now on the slide included Scott Dixon, Tristan Vautier and Ana Beatriz.
The track stayed green despite Dragon Racing's Sebastien Bourdais running slow on the track after suffering a fuel pump problem on lap 54; he made it back to pit lane only to run over an air gun on his exit, earning him a drive-thru to compound his frustrations even before he was eventually forced to retire with further mechanical problems.
"It was a disappointing day," said Bourdais. "We had a pretty good race going with a very strong start and I was passing a lot of cars making it up to 9th position. Then we had a fuel pump issue running out of fuel with still 4 gallons in the tank.
"During the first pit stop the wheel gun was not retrieved properly and ended up damaging the suspension and after that the car was never the same," he sighed. "We were 2 laps down and our day was heading south, I was trying to hang onto the car and after our final pit stop with new tyres the car was loose for no reason. At that point I knew this day was not going to end well, so we brought the car in and parked it."
Also no longer as happy with how the day was going as he had been at the start was Marco Andretti, who lost the lead and second place to Hunter-Reay and Viso on lap 62 and then suffered a stuck fuel nozzle on his pit stop on lap 68 which dropped him all the way back down the field. Then just before the 100-lap milestone, the #25 car suddenly slowed on track and came to a halt on the backstretch, triggering a yellow flag for retrieval.
"It was electrical, but I don't really have an idea," said Andretti. "The volts just went straight down, and I lost all types of power. I couldn't shift, the clutch didn't work."
The team weren't able to track down the specific reason for the problem and instead tried brute force by replacing pretty much every component it could possibly be. Even though he was 74 laps out of the running, ha came back out again later in the race and made up some extra points by finishing ahead some of the earlier DNFs.
"We came back for all the points we could," he said after finishing in 20th position. "We've been strong at Iowa in the past so we will move on and try to get points back next weekend."
In the meantime, pit tops by the leaders including Hunter-Reay, Viso and Power had allowed the early stoppers to come to the fore, with Sato having led from Castroneves from lap 69 to 90 and then resuming at the front for a second time on lap 100 when Hunter-Reay and the others adjusted their second stops to fit into the caution triggered by Andretti's woes, coming into the pits earlier than initially planned.
Sato looked to be on rails during this middle phase of the race and imperiously pulled out a four second gap on Castroneves as he surgically worked his way through the lapped traffic in a bravura performance.
Ed Carpenter came in on lap 153 after losing the battle to avoid being lapped by the leaders and nearly running up into the wall, and his stop marked the start of a new round of pit stops. Although the last caution had brought all the major players onto the same basic strategy it was still Castroneves and then Sato on lap 157 who were the first callers on pit lane. Castroneves looked set to gain the position over Sato, but the Japanese driver came out on track right ahead of the Penske #3 and was able to just hold onto the position with a little help from a backmarker (Ana Beatriz) preventing Castroneves from getting a clean run when he most needed it.
Although that had been effectively a battle for the lead, in fact Sato was down in eighth place until Hunter-Reay pitted on lap 163 and was soon followed by the others in front of the AJ Foyt car, putting the Japanese driver back out in front once more. However, the #14's handling wasn't looking nearly as strong in this stint and on lap 183 Sato got loose and took off into the marbles while running behind Charlie Kimball; while he was able to save the car, Sato now had Castroneves all over him for the lead once again as the dirty tyres and the lapped traffic ahead cost him more time.
In the end, the decisive threat came not from Castroneves but from Hunter-Reay, who blasted his way past Castroneves first and then took the lead itself from Sato on lap 199 with seemingly no problem whatsoever. Sato came in for his final pit stop next time by, still on a slightly earlier sequence than the new leader but more significantly his tyres showing the evidence of the torture they had received while battling through the backmarkers.
As the race entered its final 50 laps, Sebastian Saavedra brushed the wall before pitting on lap 202, but it was Dale Coyne Racing's Ana Beatriz spinning and hitting the wall in turn 4 on lap 212 that finally brought out the fourth and final caution of the day. The timing was a disaster for Sato, who had already pitted, because it meant that the current leaders were able to make their final stops under yellow. That left Sato at the back of the lead lap at the restart, with Hunter-Reay ahead of Castroneves, Power, Viso, Dixon and Hinchcliffe as the green came out on lap 220 with 30 laps remaining.
The end now in sight meant everyone was now in full attack mode to the finish and there were several white-knuckle battles going on throughout the field - except at the front, which defending race champion Ryan Hunter-Reay imperiously had under lock and key from there to the chequered flag by several seconds from Castroneves. It makes him the first back-to-back winner at Milwaukee since Tony Kanaan achieved it in 2006/7, and he's also just the second two-time race winner in the 2013 IZOD IndyCar Series season so far along with his team mate James Hinchcliffe.
"The team did just awesome today," said Hunter-Reay. " We had varying levels of grip through the whole race, different levels of balance, and we just stuck with it. In the end, we knew what we had to do to win. What a race it was. It was a lot of fun."
Helio Castroneves hung on to the second spot despite strong pressure from his Penske team mate Will Power in the closing moments - pressure that Castroneves chopped off with a fierce pinch that showed there was absolutely no question of team orders going on here, with the pair lucky not to end up in assured mutual destruction. Remarkably it's Power's first podium of the year after nine of the 19 races of the season completed.
"That was close," said Power of his late-race scrap with his team mate for second position. "I wanted to race him very cleanly because he's leading the championship. I was like 'Man, I don't want to take you out.'
"Still, a good result for Team Penske. Helio continues to get good points, and it's cool to get the #12 Verizon car up on the podium," Power added. "We've just got to keep chipping away and in the meantime, I'm going to help out Helio as much as I can. If I can beat him, I will and make some hay on the championship."
"Certainly it was a great day for us," contributed Castroneves. "We were a little conservative, and we had to be patient ... It's not a win, but you know what, I'm very, very happy."
Penske's success means that the two surviving Andretti Autosport cars - EJ Viso and James Hinchcliffe - ended up being pushed off the podium and had to settle for fourth and fifth instead, ahead of Scott Dixon who was the best of the Honda runners in sixth place for Ganassi.
"Any time you can get a top-five finish, especially with how competitive this field is, it's a good day for the GoDaddy car," said Hinchcliffe. "I feel like I spent half the day just trying to get around the lap traffic!"
For Dixon, Milwaukee offered some early signs of a possible Ganassi renaissance after an unusually poor first half of the 2013 season to date. "I think we went down a road earlier in the year and now we're just trying to regroup and find our way," he said. "Maybe we're lacking confidence in our changes with the car but we'll work hard and get better.
"We had a good day but went back and forth on some things," he continued. "We had understeer in the middle of the corner and the car snapped coming off. We had a bit better car then we showed. I got ran wide on the restart by Kanaan and didn't quite agree with it but then again what can you do."
Dixon finished just ahead of longtime race leader Takuma Sato, whose day had really unravelled with that scare on lap 183 and then the timing of the final caution which had left him unable to do better than seventh place by the finish.
"What an eventful and exciting race it was," he said. "Every pit stop we adjusted on the car and then the car started working really well. By mid race the ABC Supply car was beautiful and I was so enjoying driving it. The car was so strong in clean air and very strong in traffic as well.
"We were really happy with the whole balance of the car in the middle stint, but then unfortunately there was such a sudden loss of the rear grip towards the end of the race and I got high and lost track position," he lamented. "We thought there was an issue so we decided to pit as soon as our pit window opened and then try to charge back with fresh tyres. We were confident we could do it, but then the yellow came out and that was very bad timing for us because it put us behind those who hadn't pitted yet.
"They were able to pit and get ahead of us which is why we lined up in seventh," he confirmed. "Then they had fresher tyres too so it was really tough to pass them back. The boys did a great job with the pit stops all day long and I thought we could have brought a smile to AJ and we nearly did. It was still a great race, but it was so disappointing in the end - really a shame."
Sato was left sandwiched between Dixon and his Ganassi team mate Dario Franchitti, the Scot ending up as the last man still on the lead lap by the chequered flag despite starting under the ten-place penalty.
"Obviously we didn't have a great qualifying effort and then we took the engine change penalty before the race," Franchitti said. " We started in the back, made some good progress, but it was difficult to pass.
"The guys made good calls to keep me in the hunt but keeping the car pointed straight was a challenge - to pass people was very tough," he continued. "The cars are so close, so the series might be a victim of their own success right now. We need to start allowing something to differentiate when guys get it right and wrong."
The best of those to have been picked off the leaders during the 250-lap event was Justin Wilson, who finished in ninth place ahead of Indianapolis 500 champion Tony Kanaan who has suffered from intermittent communications problems for much of the afternoon.
"It was a very difficult race for us," admitted Kanaan. " We had to battle all day long, but just didn't have the pace. We finished in the top-ten so I will take those points. Now we move on to Iowa where hopefully we can have a better finish."
There had been no such problems or glitches for Hunter-Reay, however, who exited Milwaukee celebrating not only his ninth win in 99 IndyCar starts, but his first Father's Day as a father since the birth of his son Ryden in January with wife Beccy. All in all, things are looking pretty good in the life of the reigning champion, at the midpoint of the 2013 season as he sets his sights ever more firmly on back-to-back championships.Full race results
and championship standings
are available, along with the post-race Q&A interview
with the race winner.