Ryan Hunter-Reay clinched his first series title tonight at Auto Club Speedway with a fourth-place finish in the MAV TV 500, which was won by Ed Carpenter with a last-lap pass of Dario Franchitti that took place before Takuma Sato hit the wall and froze the field.
"This hasn't sunk in yet," a joyous Hunter-Reay exclaimed on pit road. "I just drove 500 miles for my life. I cannot believe we're IndyCar champions...My dream's come true. This is unbelievable!"
"[Hunter-Reay] just did a hell of a job in the end," said Andretti Autosport team owner Michael Andretti, who signed Hunter-Reay to a two-year contract extension over the weekend. "When he needs to step it up, he steps it up!"
Hunter-Reay was back 17 points of Will Power going into tonight's race, but Power opened the door on Lap 55, when he lost control of his car and hit the wall in Turn 2 -- with Hunter-Reay narrowly missing the careening Power on the high line.
"I just caught a seam [in the track]...It really caught me by surprise," Power said shortly after his incident. "It was the last thing I thought would happen."
The Team Penske crew put up a valiant effort to repair Power's car and managed to get their title contender back onto the track at Lap 123 in order to run 12 more laps, which enabled him to move up one position to 24th. That in turn forced Hunter-Reay to finish fifth or better in order to defeat Power for the title.
Hunter-Reay looked off the pace for much of the night, but was still running sixth when Alex Tagliani hit the wall with about 20 laps to go. That allowed Hunter-Reay to move into fifth position, and he jumped two more spots before Tony Kanaan crashed with nine laps to go.
INDYCAR Race Control then threw the red flag, presumably to ensure that the race would end under green flag conditions, and the green later emerged with five laps to go. Hunter-Reay slipped back to fifth in the final circuits before Sato's wreck in Turn 2 finished the proceedings.
As for Carpenter, he claimed his second career victory in the series and his first as a driver/owner of his own team. And just like he did in his first win last season at Kentucky Speedway, he defeated Franchitti for the honor.
More to come later tonight/early tomorrow on a stellar season finale...