"I was trying to be careful but got bunched up and broke the front wing," said the Brazilian. "Tough day for the Auto Club Chevrolet, but my team did a great job getting me back out after our incident with the nose."
Pressure on Hunter-Reay from third-place man Takuma Sato allowed Dario Franchitti to start to pull away at the front, with the #10 three seconds ahead by the time Sato finally used push-to-pass to secure second place on lap 23 with the Andretti Autosport #1 now clearly struggling with tyre wear. Once releases, Sato immediately made huge inroads into Franchitti's lead before he came in for hit pit stop on lap 28, the same time that Hunter-Reay came in to dispense with that shot set of first reds.
Franchitti himself came in next time by - already having led nearly double the number of laps at Long Beach than he's managed on all the street courses in 2012 combined - but he suffered a problematic pit top that cost him valuable seconds. The situation was not helped by the course going full course yellow moments later when Alex Tagliani and Charlie Kimball ended their extended side-by-side battle by ploughing into the tyre wall at turn 8 after Kimball simply went into too hot to make the corner and left Tagliani with no place to avoid the accident.
Having been left in charge of the race after the cars ahead pitted, Will Power was now able to nip into pit lane for his own stop and emerge back out on track jut behind Takuma Sato who was following the safety car around. Franchitti had dropped to third ahead of Conway who had come in early by comparison; Graham Rahal and James Hinchcliffe rounded out the top six going into the restart on lap 35.
The restart seemed to catch many by surprise, Franchitti using the opportunity to jump Power and retake second spot on the run down to the first corner. But the big loser was James Hinchcliffe who made a rash dive down the inside line and got pinched into the left hand wall for his troubles by Tony Kanaan. The #27 GoDaddy.com car ended up shattered and in the tyre barrier, catching his team mate EJ Viso on the way.
Although Viso was able to spin the car around and get back underway, a call to pit lane was in his immediate future where he also found Conway and Hunter-Reay already present for repairs. Hinchcliffe's own car was beyond salvaging but at least he didn't have to sit out the rest of the race stuck in the car, instead jumping on a scooter to get back to pit lane after a second consecutive dismal race for the St Pete race winner.
"Two in a row, what a kick in the pants," he said later. "I didn't get the best restart and Tony had a smokin' one and I was trying to keep, I think it was Pagenaud, behind me on the inside and as we got down to Turn 1.
"I haven't seen a replay so I don't know if Tony was trying to do a last minute pass or if he was getting squeezed by someone else, but he moved in the brake zone and I just had nowhere to go and day done," Hinchcliffe added. "Really tough break ... I genuinely think we were podium contenders today and it was going to be a good comeback from not the strongest of weekends [in Alabama.]"
After the clean-up, racing resumed once more on lap 39 with Sato quickly speeding away while Franchitti promptly lost second spot again this time to Graham Rahal, with Vautier now up to fourth place despite his back row start and drive-thru penalty. Tony Kanaan and Simon Pagenaud formed up the rest of the top six with Will Power down in seventh ahead of a feisty-looking Justin Wilson, who made a successful move on Power with a shot of push to pass into turn 1 on lap 41. Nor were Power's problems over, as Oriol Servià was next in line to pressure the clearly struggling Penske car despite carrying front wing damage of his own; he finally pulled off the move successfully on lap 44.
Sato had pulled out a whopping four seconds in just four laps since the restart over Rahal; by contrast, early leader Franchitti succumbed to a move from a confident looking Vautier and was ousted from third place by the rookie, making the Ganassi the uneasy filling in a Schmidt sandwich. But even Sato was not immune to the waxing and waning fortunes of the day, and slowly but surely Rahal started to reel him back in again.