Andretti Autosport just loves Iowa, and it seems that the loving feeling is entirely mutual. In a season which hasn't exactly gone to plan for the team, it seems that they can still rely on the Hawkeye State to lay on a guaranteed trip to victory lane for the team and for former series champion Ryan Hunter-Reay in particular.

Hunter-Reay won here on his way to the championship in 2012 and did so again 12 months ago in 2014, two of five consecutive victories at Iowa Speedway that the team had achieved heading into this weekend's return visit. Given the squad's lacklustre form so far in 2015 (Carlos Munoz's victory in a rain-hit red-flagged race at Detroit in May being very much the exception to the rule) it seemed almost impossible to dare hope that this run would be extended to six this weekend, but the minute that Hunter-Reay took to the front for the first time on lap 264 the result suddenly no longer seemed in any doubt.

"The #28 DHL Honda was on rails at the end," said the race winner, who has only finished in the top ten three times so far this season and the top five just once. "This one we really had to work for. After a tough season, this one is really nice."

CLICK: Full race results from the Iowa Corn 300 at Iowa Speedway.

Following a moment's silence to remember Jules Bianchi, and with the sun already low in the sky over Iowa Speedway, an all-Brazilian front row led the field to the green flag for the start of the Iowa Corn 300. Penske's Helio Castroneves had successfully pipped Ganassi's Tony Kanaan for pole, while a similar Penske/Ganassi display was to be found on the second row of the grid with Juan Pablo Montoya lining up alongside Scott Dixon. Behind them, the third row was an all-Penske affair with team mates Simon Pagenaud and Will Power next to each other on the starting grid as the 300-lap, 268.2-mile race got underway.

It took two goes to get the field suitably organised before the race officially began. Castroneves got the initial jump but Kanaan demonstrated the same sort of formidable pace that he'd shown on all day on Friday to blast his way past and into the lead, Dixon quickly following him through to pick up second spot. Castroneves held on to third but behind him was the biggest gainer over the first laps in the form of CFH Racing's Josef Newgarden who had vaulted past three Penske cars in his move up from seventh place. One of the cars that Newgarden had dispatched was Montoya, but the championship leader soon had a much bigger problem on his hands just nine laps into the race when a sudden suspension failure launched the Penske #2 into a hard hit into the wall in turn 2.

"Something broke, as soon as I loaded up something gave up," he confirmed later. "We had a good car. It was a little loose the first couple of laps, so I was just really taking it easy, biding my time."

With an oil fire encouraging Montoya to expedite his exit from the cockpit, it was the end of a remarkable run of consistency for the Colombian in the 2015 Verizon IndyCar Series to date - and potentially a huge turning point in this year's championship title battle with his 54 point lead in the standings coming into today's race now in extreme peril. All his rivals now had to do was maximise the opportunity that had just presented itself - surely one or more of them would manage to do that before the night was done?

A number of cars in the back half of the field - including last week's race winner Sebastien Bourdais who had been forced to start at the rear after the KVSH Racing #11 tapped the wall in qualifying - opted to throw the strategy dice with early pit stops, but the leaders all stayed out for the restart on lap 24. That proved to be short-lived, with contact from Ganassi's Charlie Kimball sending KV Racing Technology's Stefano Coletti lurching down towards the inside wall. The Monaco-born driver somehow managed to save the day and avert an almighty wreck, although he and Kimball both needed to pit for new items of bodywork to replace the worse-for-wear bits left lying out in the middle of the track.

There was no change among the leading positons when the race went back to green despite a concerted bid by Dixon to get around Kanaan. The race was able to settle down into a period of green flag running, which saw some vigorous close-quarters jockeying for position right through the field but fortunately without any costly contact. Graham Rahal was making the most visible progress through the field from 17th place on the grid with some daring opportunistic overtakes, but his progress came to an abrupt halt when he was forced to make an unscheduled green flag stop for new tyres after picking up a puncture on the Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing #15 which put him two laps off the leaders. At least he was able to show off the superior pace of fresh rubber once he rejoined the fray on lap 60.

As the green flag stint progressed, the tyre wear appeared to hit the Ganassi cars hardest and Castroneves was able to take advantage and move into the lead of the race on lap 69 shortly before the first full round of fuel-and-tyre stops broke out. Those cars that had gone off-sequence early including Bourdais and Kimball briefly cycled through the lead before Castroneves was restored out in front once more followed by Newgarden, Kanaan and Dixon, with Ganassi rookie Sage Karam in fifth ahead of defending race champion Ryan Hunter-Reay. Meanwhile the pit stops enabled Rahal to get back on the lead lap again.

As the leaders came up on a gaggle of slow backmarkers, Newgarden was able to take advantage and make a successful move around Castroneves to claim the lead on lap 106 just seconds before Justin Wilson had the air taken off the front of the Andretti Autosport #25 by Pippa Mann getting loose ahead of him; that sent Wilson washing up the track where he brushed the wall in turn 2 hard enough to bruise the right-rear suspension toe-link and bring out the yellows. Newgarden just managed to beat Castroneves in the ensuing tight race off pit road, with Kanaan and Dixon similarly holding position and Hunter-Reay gaining one spot by leapfrogging Karam.

With the sun now setting and the floodlights firmly in the ascendency, the race resumed on lap 120 and Castroneves quickly reasserted his control of the race with a pass on Newgarden. However, Newgarden proved to have the more enduring pace the longer the stint went on and the 24-year-old from Tennessee was back out in front again on lap 160 shortly before Charlie Kimball understeered up the track in turn 2 and onto the marbles. That proved to be a one-way ticket into the wall and he was fortunate to avoid also being collected in a secondary contact thanks to some fast reflexes on the part of Dale Coyne Racing's Tristan Vautier.

Kimball's exit from the race brought out a new caution on lap 172 and the opportunity for the remaining drivers to head down pit lane for some fresh rubber. Newgarden was once again successful in beating Castroneves back out ahead of Kanaan and Hunter-Reay whose team mate Carlos Munoz was able to get ahead of Scott Dixon. However there was heartbreak for Graham Rahal, who had successfully raced his way back up to fifth place only for chronic gearbox issues on the #15 to undo all that good work and put him off the lead lap for the second time tonight.

Newgarden was able to keep the lead at the restart on lap 184, but Castroneves was swamped by co-ordinated strikes from the two Andretti cars of Hunter-Reay and Munoz and lost multiple positions as a consequence, and thereafter never seemed able to recover the pace he had enjoyed in the first half of the race. Meanwhile there was even worse news for Tony Kanaan who was unexpectedly called onto pit lane where the Ganassi crew diagnosed an engine issue that brought his night to a frustrating early finish.

"I guess it just wasn't meant to be for us here today," said Kanaan, who had spent 70 laps in the lead by the time he was forced out of the race. "The Fusion car was really awesome and we had a really fast car all weekend. When mechanical problems happen, there's not much you can do. I've had a ton of these races go my way, and a ton that haven't gone my way. There's just not much you can do in that situation."

While Ganassi still sorting out Kanaan's stricken car on pit road, back out on track the yellows were on display again after Coletti had got loose through turn 2 and spun into a hard lick against the inside wall to put him out of the race as well. "I was pushing really hard to pass some cars and then lost it in turn two and hit the wall," he said after being checked and released from the medican centre.

There were less than 100 laps remaining when the race went back to green, and Newgarden found himself under increasing pressure from Hunter-Reay who in turn was having to work hard to avoid being demoted a spot by Dixon. However the Kiwi's day then ended abruptly when the #9 was forced to crawl onto pit road with 60 laps remaining after suffering mechanical problems with the right rear axle. It was a turn of events that was a godsend as far as the already-retired Montoya was concerned as it meant Dixon would make only minimal in-roads into the Colombian's points lead.

It was time for the last scheduled round of pit stops, and Hunter-Reay got the jump on Newgarden by pitting early but at the risk of leaving himself vulnerable on worn tyres come the final laps. Graham Rahal was the final car to come down pit road, staying out as long as possible in the hope that a late caution would materialise and allow him to get his lost lap back - and incredibly, as if custom-made for Rahal, it happened in the form of Takuma Sato planting the AJ Foyt Racing #14 into the wall in turn 2 in a virtual repeat of Montoya's own early-race accident.

That allowed Rahal to finally pit under yellow and get back onto the lead lap despite his ongoing gearbox issues. With a number of other drivers also deciding to come in for new tyres for the final laps of the evening, Rahal came back out in ninth place just ahead of fellow-stoppers Castroneves and Andretti; now the question was whether their fresh rubber would allow them to hunt down and overhaul race leaders Hunter-Reay, Newgarden, Karam and Munoz in the 22 laps remaining before the chequered flag.

In short, the answer was no: Hunter-Reay knew all to well how to win at Iowa and he duly executed the tried and tested team plan to perfection, quickly pulling out enough of a margin at the front over Newgarden to see him all the way to the finish line to clinch the chequered flag and extend Andretti Autosport's run of wins at Iowa to six. Newgarden was able to close the gap in the final seconds but not by nearly enough to threaten Hunter-Reay's victory, meaning that he had to settle for second place on the podium despite leading for a race-high 111 laps.

"To finish second was bitter-sweet," admitted Newgarden. "We had a great race car. I think we had a car to win. But it's disappointing - I'm really sad we lost to be honest. It's just a shoot-out scenario we didn't have what we needed at the end, but we still had a great effort all weekend."

Joining them on the podium was the last Ganassi standing. With the prior exits of Kimball, Kanaan and finally Dixon during the course of the evening it was young Sage Karam who was left to fly the team's colours although his tough, no-holds-barred style of knife-fighting in the final stint won him few friends among his fellow drivers, with CFH Racing's Ed Carpenter in particular storming down pit road to remonstrate with the 20-year-old.

"He should have been penalised on the spot. He has no clue," fumed Carpenter. "I said that he has no respect for anyone out there. If it wasn't for guys with experience driving with their heads on he would be hurting himself and other people. I think it's ridiculous.

"I'm just mad because I had a car that was good enough for third or fourth and I do safe driving - slam on the brakes on the straightaway to save Sage's butt and he gets rewarded with a podium for it," he added.

But Karam was unrepentant: "He is just angry at my driving. He says I squeezed him a few times, but it is the same way he drove me. It's hard racing. I'm going for wins and that is how we are driving. It's close racing, its IndyCar Racing this ain't go-karts or anything anymore. We are going to race each other hard and we are professionals. We know each other limits. I mean, tough luck for him."

Off the podium, Graham Rahal overcame his variety of setbacks to make it a rare all-American top four, with Munoz hanging on to fifth place ahead of Carpenter, Andretti, Ryan Briscoe and Sebastien Bourdais, and Will Power rounding out the top ten after an unusually anonymous weekend by his standards. The final man on the lead lap by the finish was Helio Castroneves, but neither of the Penske drivers had been able to take advantage of the woes of Montoya and Dixon in terms of making major in-roads in the points.

Instead it's Rahal who emerges as the big winner in terms of the championship picture, moving into second place behind Montoya whose lead has been trimmed to just 42 points - but that's not nearly as bad a setback as it could have been given Montoya's own premature exit from the race. He still has the whip hand in the title battle with three races remaining in the 2015 season, although as this weekend's events proved anything could yet still happen before the year is over - especially as the final GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma comes with double points attached.

Before that happens, however, the drivers and teams get a week off before returning to street and road course action to kick off the month of August with the Honda Indy 200 at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course in Lexington, Ohio in a fortnight's time.

See full race results from the Iowa Corn 300 and updated championship standings.



Loading Comments...