- Associated Press - Sunday, September 16, 2012

FONTANA, CALIF. (AP) - Ryan Hunter-Reay opened the IndyCar season determined to take his career to another level.

He had a chance to race for the season-opening win at St. Pete, where a victory would have given him a nice little bump to start things. But when fuel became an issue, and his crew implored him to save gas over the closing laps, he backed off and settled for a third-place finish.

It’s not easy to ask a driver, especially one who opened the season with all of three IndyCar victories, not to chase the checkered flag. Hunter-Reay willingly did it, though, because he’d changed his thinking and made the big picture _ collecting every point possible _ his focus.

It paid off Saturday night when Hunter-Reay capped a career year with his first championship at a major racing level. In finishing fourth, he beat Will Power by three points for the IndyCar title, the first for an American since Sam Hornish Jr. in 2006.

“I always believed that if I got the right opportunity and worked hard enough that I could be in this position,” he said.

Hunter-Reay certainly had to earn it Saturday night at Auto Club Speedway.

He’d won three consecutive races over the summer to climb into a crowded championship race, only to have a string of bad luck after taking over the points lead for the first time in his career. But he staved off elimination two weeks ago at Baltimore, where Power had a chance to clinch the title, with a go-for-broke final restart that gave him a series-best fourth win of the year.

Still, he trailed Power by 17 points at the start of the finale and knew he’d need a great race and a lot of help from Power to snatch away the title.

The help came 55 laps in when Power, while racing Hunter-Reay for position, lost control of his car as it slipped in a seam in the speedway. Power crashed, and for the third consecutive year, his title chances seemed gone.

With Power in street clothes back in the paddock, the Andretti Autosport team did the math and determined Hunter-Reay needed a sixth-place finish to grab the title.

Only Penske Racing wasn’t giving up so easy, and at least 20 crew members furiously went to work on repairing Power’s car enough to get him back on track. If he could run 12 more laps, he’d gain another spot in the standings and force Hunter-Reay to finish fifth or better.

“Trust me, I was not happy when I heard we had to finish one more position up because they got him back out,” Hunter-Reay said. “That was a curveball I wasn’t expecting.”

Power, meanwhile, had changed back into his firesuit and was willing to do whatever it took to put the pressure on Hunter-Reay. Experience has taught Power that anything can happen in IndyCar, and he’s been on the receiving end of his own fluke accidents _ a pit road collision that was not his fault in last year’s second-to-last race ultimately cost him the championship.

“I feel bad for my guys to be three years in a row so close, and you see the effort that they put in just to get me out to do 12 more laps in such a short space for a completely wrecked car,” Power said. “She wasn’t pretty. That was like _ I was very, very tense on the wheel. It was definitely a loose car. I thought I was going to crash again.”

He completed those 12 laps, though, and then went back to his team truck to watch on television as Hunter-Reay tried to work his way up to a fifth-place finish.

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