As it turned out, Hunter-Reay had been struggling all week at Fontana with his car. He’d kept it quiet in an attempt not to draw attention to any of the issues he was having at Fontana, a track IndyCar hadn’t raced on since 2005. Its wide lanes and slick surface had been an issue since Wednesday, when the track opened for an eight-hour test session in which Hunter-Reay wrecked early.
Then Mike Conway told A.J. Foyt Racing he wasn’t comfortable racing on the oval, and E.J. Viso tweeted after Friday’s practice he wouldn’t race unless more downforce was added to the cars. So tension was high for everyone, and it mounted as the laps wound down.
Hunter-Reay worked close to where he needed to be, and it quickly became about the big picture again, just as it was six months ago in St. Pete.
Team owner Michael Andretti coached him over the radio: “You need to go get some spots” on one restart, and “we need you to hold your position” on another. Then came another curveball _ a rare red-flag stoppage for Tony Kanaan’s late accident, and the call from race control nearly unraveled the team.
Hunter-Reay screamed over his radio about the call by race director Beaux Barfield, and Andretti complained that Barfield “was changing the rules” with no warning. After a deep breath, the attention was turned to Hunter-Reay, who was told as he sat idling in his car, “You’ve got to stay focused.”
He later said the entire sequence was excruciating.
“That was the most pressure I’ve ever had in my life, the last 20 laps of that race,” he said. “Then the red happened and we had to sit there and think about it. I went into those restarts going for broke like we did at Baltimore. `We have to be able to finish in the top four or five’ was my thought. Lots of nerves this whole week, the championship on the line. You try to stay cool, put on your game face.
“But underneath it all, it’s the biggest opportunity of your life. It’s what you’ve been working on for, you know, 20 years to be at this point, and it all comes down to a weekend.”
He pulled it out in the end, giving Andretti his fourth IndyCar championship as an owner but first since 2007.
When it was over, Power, who has nothing to show for three years of IndyCar dominance, visited Hunter-Reay during his championship celebration. He knew his mistakes this year on ovals had cost him the championship and praised Hunter-Reay for earning the title.
“At the end of the day, Hunter-Reay did a very solid job,” Power said. “Won more races than anyone. Won on ovals, road courses, and he’s definitely a deserving champion. There is no question.”
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