PHOTO: Courtesy of Firestone Racing
It was nothing short of rising up to the challenge.
Ryan Hunter-Reay's championship hopes appeared all but done going into today's Grand Prix of Baltimore after an engine failure and an 18th-place finish in his previous two races had knocked him back to 37 points behind Will Power.
But instead of folding, Hunter-Reay instead ensured that the 2012 IZOD IndyCar Series title battle would go to the final race of the season after charging from 10th to victory on the Inner Harbor. His fourth win of the year helped him chop his deficit down to 17 points, as Power was unable to capitalize on his pole position and wound up finishing sixth despite a great effort of his own.
The final 500 miles of the campaign, to be run on Sept. 15 at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, California, will determine this year's champion between the two competitors. It'll be the eighth time in the last 10 seasons that the IndyCar/Indy Racing League championship will be decided in a season finale.
And as thrilled as fans surely are about that, there's nobody more giddy about it than Hunter-Reay and his Andretti Autosport squad.
"I'm so happy to be a part of it," Hunter-Reay said in post-race. "It is really -- it is an unbelievable day. We had one thing we could do to keep this championship and that's win, and we did that."
The turning point came on a restart with six laps remaining in the 75-lap event. Ryan Briscoe was in front of Hunter-Reay and Simon Pagenaud, but when the green flag came out, Hunter-Reay rocketed past Briscoe and took Pagenaud with him.
Briscoe's team owner Roger Penske immediately requested a review of the restart, and INDYCAR obliged him with one. But race officials decided to take no action against the American driver, who naturally proclaimed innocence on the matter.
"The green flag was actually coming out before the leaders were accelerating and I caught wind of that, so I just started to focus on the green flag instead of focusing on the guy next to me," Hunter-Reay said. "Briscoe got jumped on that one, but the green flag was flying when he was still sitting there in first gear. I mean I feel sorry for him. Well, I don't really feel sorry -- but you know what I mean."
On the other hand, Briscoe, who eventually got back around Pagenaud to claim runner-up, called the situation "a little bit unfair" and contended that he was "screwed."
"The fact is you're supposed to pair up," said Briscoe in reference to the double-file restarts. "[Hunter-Reay] hung back about two car lengths out of the chicane and then he accelerated from two car lengths back before I accelerated and that's not how the restarts work.
"You come off the last corner, you pair up side by side, and then, within the [acceleration] zone, when the pole sitter -- regardless whether he chooses left or right, it doesn't make a difference -- when the pole sitter accelerates, they wave the green flag. Not when the second place guy accelerates from two car lengths back, which is what happened."
Shortly after that moment, a multi-car pileup ensued in Turn 4 that blocked the track and brought out the ninth and final caution of the day. The field would see their last restart of the afternoon with two laps left, but Hunter-Reay managed to hang on to the point.
On that same lap, Power was pushed from fifth place by an opportunistic Rubens Barrichello in Turn 3, causing him to lose spots to Barrichello and Oriol Servia. Power would get past Servia on the final lap to get his sixth-place effort.
It was a long day for both title contenders, who along with the rest of the field had to contend with lots of restarts and an early rain shower that hit some parts of the two-mile street circuit but not all of it -- making for a very tricky course to deal with.
Hunter-Reay stayed out on dry slicks while most of the leaders, including Power, pitted on Lap 19 for wet tires. However, the track quickly dried back up and Power was forced to blink on Lap 27, when he hit pit road for dry tires and emerged in 17th place.
While Hunter-Reay carried on up toward the front, Power had to make his way through the field with a stellar drive that saw him briefly rise back up to the lead before he made his last stop on Lap 56. Coming out eighth, he clawed his way into the Top 5 before his run-in with Barrichello.
"I knew it would be a day like this," said Power, who will battle for the title in a season-ending race for the third year in a row. "It never comes easy. We just have to do our best and fight like a dog till the end. We'll come out swinging."
After nearly watching Hunter-Reay stuff it into the Turn 1 wall on the next-to-last restart, Pagenaud settled for third position after leading 14 laps in today's contest. INDYCAR's newest rookie of the year also pulled off the best restart of 2012, when he charged from sixth to the lead when the field received the green on Lap 37.
The Frenchman credited a combination of several elements for the jaw-dropping move.
"I think I just timed it perfectly and it's one of those deals -- sometimes you get a little lucky and sometimes you don't," he said about it. "I want to say this time I was just 100% perfect. I went push‑to‑pass, went back on the power just before everybody when the green flag was dropped, and I had a good draft. So I had a lot of speed to go into Turn 1. Made my way, and, wow, when I was braking in turn one, I'm like, 'I think I'm P1!'"
Scott Dixon never led in his 200th Indy-car start, but still came home with a respectable fourth place finish. Barrichello rounded out the Top 5 finishers.
For a full look at the box score, click HERE.