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.