16 September 2012
Hunter-Reay survives thriller to win title
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.
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