FONTANA, CALIF. (AP) - The decision to stay with Andretti Autosport apparently came down to loyalty for Ryan Hunter-Reay.
Hunter-Reay wrapped a two-year contract extension before Saturday night’s IndyCar season finale, which he entered trailing leader Will Power by 17 points for the series championship. Hunter-Reay spent the week at Auto Club Speedway declining to discuss his free agency, or reports he was being courted by powerful Penske Racing.
He still didn’t want to talk about his decision, which was announced late Friday night by the team, until after the finale.
“I have a lot of deep rooted relationships with the team and the team sponsors and I’m looking forward to continuing and further developing those relationships,” he said in a statement. “I’m happy to be able to enjoy the offseason knowing what the next two years hold. I’m looking forward to my return with Andretti Autosport and hope to have the opportunity to speak more on it soon, but (Saturday) we are focused on leaving Fontana with a championship.”
Penske Racing fields three cars, and has already picked up the 2013 options for Power and Helio Castroneves. Ryan Briscoe has been told he’s free to look around as the team works on sponsorship for its third car _ the seat Hunter-Reay was reportedly offered.
“I talked to Hunter-Reay probably six months ago, and he talked about maybe wanting to come onto the team,” Penske said Saturday. “But you couldn’t even negotiate with him until after the season, so that was not an option for us based on his contract with Andretti.”
Hunter-Reay has been with Andretti for three seasons, the longest he’s ever been with the same team. He believes it’s played a pivotal role in pushing him into title contention for the first time in his career.
Hunter-Reay led IndyCar this season with four wins, and set career highs in podium finishes and laps led while vying to become the first American since 2006 to win the series title.
Team owner Michael Andretti said the lineup this year of Marco Andretti, James Hinchcliffe and Hunter-Reay is the strongest the team has been in years, and Hunter-Reay’s re-signing gives the team stability into the future.
“We are happy to have Ryan back with us for the 2013 and 2014 IndyCar seasons. He is a tough competitor and has become an important part of our team,” Andretti said. “He is the ultimate team player and I know we can count on him, along with his teammates, to continue to be a foundation for us. We believe that he, Marco and James will continue to work together and take the team to great places with great success.”
TOUGH TO REPEAT: Since Alex Zanardi’s three-medal haul at the London Paralympics, the talk has shifted to a potential run in next year’s Indianapolis 500.
Close friend and former teammate Jimmy Vasser had talked briefly with Zanardi about giving him a car for the 500 if Zanardi won gold, and Zanardi answered the call with a pair of gold-medal individual performances in handcycling and a silver in the relay.
Now a hopeful IndyCar community waits to see what comes of the discussions. But any venture would likely have to include Chip Ganassi, the car owner for Zanardi’s two CART championships. Zanardi, who lost his legs in a 2001 race at Germany, never got the chance to run the Indianapolis 500.