Ryan Hunter-Reay was in no doubt about what he had to do at Baltimore: win. And moreover, win by multiple positions over championship leader Will Power if he was to have any chance of closing the gap between them in the IZOD IndyCar Series points standings, to the point where it was still realistically possible for Hunter-Reay to continue his challenge for the title at the season finale in two weeks time at Auto Club Speedway at Fontana.
That's why a starting grid position of 12th place had been so painful to Hunter-Reay, especially as Will Power had so effortlessly glided to pole position for the 75-lap race on the the 2.04-mile, 13-turn track temporary street circuit. Power duly led the field to the green flag and immediately started to pull away from Scott Dixon, leaving Hunter-Reay with no option but to make use of push-to-pass right from the start and begin picking off positions down the front straight on the opening laps.
Dixon was another driver still in with a shot at the title, but it was clear he had nothing of the pace required to keep up with Power at the front, let alone challenge for the lead. Indeed, he was helpless to prevent Sebastian Bourdais slicing past him into turn 1 at the start of lap 5. Bourdais was looking on fine form despite still being in pain from the crash he'd had with Josef Newgarden at Sonoma, which had left Newgarden sidelined this weekend and Champ Car veteran Bruno Junqueira drafted in as a replacement at Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing.
The opening laps were full of near-misses, light contact and white knuckle moments as the beginnings of pit stop strategies started to form with JR Hildebrand, EJ Viso, Rubens Barrichello and Graham Rahal opted to come in early on obvious three-stop cycles. But then on lap 9 Ed Carpenter was the first driver in the race to misjudge the run through the remodelled chicane on the front stretch, intended to redirect cars away from dangerous bumps around railroad tracks. The #20 car was sent skidding into a crunching impact with the wall where it came to an emphatic halt, triggering the first full course caution of the afternoon.
"I was trying to gain time through the chicane and I just pushed too hard and hit the wall," said Carpenter. "I really feel badly for our crew guys and the Fuzzy's Vodka folks. I am pretty frustrated. We had an opportunity to pick up some points and have a good street race. It was a good weekend for us overall and this is a disappointment for our team."
There was the start of a light shower moving over the region during the ensuing caution, but the teams had been reassured that it would be brief and would have little impact, so no one was inclined to switch to wet tyres on such minor provocation - even when the sprinkles started to take on the appearance of full-blooded rain drops.
The race resumed, but on lap 14 two separate incidents at turn 6 triggered a quick return to yellow: Mike Conway was spun around by a tap from Helio Castroneves, while Bruno Junquiera was punted into a spin by JR Hildebrand. Conway was able to carry on, but Junqueira's engine stalled which brought out the caution and warranted a drive-thru penalty for Hildebrand.
This was a sideshow compared with the weather channel: the rain was still falling, and contrary to the forecasts the teams were receiving it still wasn't going away. The longer it went on, the more treacherous parts of the circuit were getting for race cars on slick tyres - as evidenced by Bourdais spinning behind the safety car and losing three positions, despite his pleas to be allowed to retake his spot because it had happened under yellow. Even with this latest evidence, most of the drivers held their nerves and stayed out, betting on the weather drying up soon.
As soon as the field got back up to speed down the front stretch on lap 18, it was clear that this had been a horrible mistake: the amount of water thrown into the air betrayed just how wet the slick streets now were. Helio Castroneves, EJ Viso and Justin Wilson were all rapid visitors to the run-off areas and it was inevitable that someone would end up buried in the tyre wall at turn 1 - it just happened to be Marco Andretti next time by, bringing out the third caution.
"I messed up and put the car in the wall," he said. "We ended up driving an ill car for the rest of the day."