Just when many of us were discounting Ryan Hunter-Reay’s championship chances this year’s Indy 500 winner put himself back on the map in Iowa on Saturday night. After running into nothing but trouble in the last six races Hunter-Reay gave his fading title hopes a boost by scoring a surprising win on the high-banked Iowa oval thanks to a late stop for fresh tyres.

With 40 laps to go in the 300-lap race it looked like Tony Kanaan was going to score his and Chip Ganassi’s first win of the year. Kanaan took the lead on the second lap and led most of the way, enjoying his strongest race of the year. Team-mate Scott Dixon also ran well, qualifying on the pole and battling with Kanaan as the race wore on. With 40 laps left Kanaan and Dixon had broken away from the rest and appeared to be in command when Juan Pablo Montoya crashed as he tried to pass Ed Carpenter for fifth place.

Out came the yellow and Hunter-Reay’s team owner Michael Andretti made a race-winning call to bring Ryan into the pits for a new set of Firestone tyres. Josef Newgarden, Ed Carpenter and Graham Rahal also stopped for tyres and all four immediately started to make their way through the field when the green flag waved for the final time with ten laps to go. As the leaders struggled on worn rubber all eyes turned to watching Hunter-Reay and Newgarden in particular, both of whom swept past Dixon with four laps to go before motoring around the helpless Kanaan on the second-last lap.

Hunter-Reay took the chequered flag half a second ahead of Newgarden and became the first IndyCar driver to score three wins this year as Andretti Autosport came through to win for the fifth year in a row in Iowa. The result pushed Hunter-Reay into third in IndyCar points behind Penske men Hélio Castroneves and Will Power. Newgarden took an excellent second, his best result by far this year, while Kanaan and Dixon were bitterly disappointed to finish third and fourth.

Hunter-Reay qualified 13th and made his way into the top six but winning the race seemed impossible until the final yellow flag. “We talked about it before the race and said if it went yellow with 15 laps to go we would stop for tyres and it worked!” Michael Andretti grinned. “It was a little gutsy. We gave up four spots but it was a big difference. It was a tough night but we hung in there and Ryan did a hell of a job at the end.”

Hunter-Reay could not have been more delighted. “Man, that was crazy!” he said. “We took the gamble because our tyres were shot before that. Credit to [his engineer] Ray Gosselin and Michael for making that call. That was fun. It was like a video game at the end, just threading through traffic.

“My car was on rails at the end. We had no shot where we were on older tyres, so we went for it. We had a tough day in the pits and on the track. Things were just not going right. That’s why you’ve got to keep your head in it and be ready for whatever comes in this series.

“This is a great day. I hope I can do that again sometime. That was fun where everybody’s on old tyres and I’m on new tyres. That was amazing.”

The talented Newgarden has had a rough season so far with some good performances but no results for Sarah Fisher’s small, one-car team so he was delighted to finish a close second. “That was the weirdest experience I’ve ever had in a race,” Newgarden remarked. “It’s almost unfair. You put on new tyres and you have so much more grip than everybody. It was really a great call. I said this is going to play out between us and Ryan and we both got great restarts and were carving up to the top. I knew the laps were clicking down and there wasn’t enough time to get Ryan but we got everyone else.

“This is really cool. Finishing on the podium is really great for our team especially after we made a mistake in qualifying. We didn’t have the best balance all race long but we were quick and we made it happen at the end when it counted.”

After leading 247 laps in search of his first win with Ganassi’s team Kanaan was gutted to finish third. “It’s one of those things,” Tony shrugged. “They took a gamble and it’s such a shame because we dominated the race and I had a lot of fun. But what can you do? We’ve been knocking on the door and to win races you have to run up front. We’ve been doing that and I’ll take the third place and go on to Toronto.”

Dixon was equally disappointed. “Those sneaky little buggers!” he grinned. “That was good pit strategy for Andretti and Hunter-Reay to take the win. Our cars were fantastic today but I just couldn’t believe what happened at the end. TK ran a hell of a race. We had to work on my car a lot. We gave Tony a race for a few laps before I burned the front tyres off my car.”

On worn tyres Castroneves fell from third to eighth in the closing laps but took over IndyCar’s championship lead from team-mate Power who was in even more trouble through the final laps tumbling from fourth to finish 14th. “We were right there battling with the Ganassi guys for the lead,” Castroneves said. “It was an exciting race but I had no idea what was happening at the end. They never told me Hunter-Reay had fresh tyres but he was suddenly beside me. He kind of put me into the ‘grey’ a little bit and I lost momentum and everybody was passing me. But hey, I’ll take the points lead any day, any time. It’s great for Team Penske.”

After 12 of 18 races Castroneves has 471 points followed by Power with 462 and Hunter-Reay with 439. Simon Pagenaud finished 11th in Iowa and slipped to fourth with 421 points while Montoya also lost a place, dropping to fifth with 409 points after his accident with Carpenter.

JPM was very unhappy with Carpenter. “He had been running every lap on the top and I got inside of him,” Juan said. “They all love preaching safe racing, but when you’re in the car they’re just douche bags.”

When he was told that IndyCar officials had reviewed the incident and decided against any penalties, Montoya growled: “I’ll take some action later.”

Carpenter went on to finish fifth and he accepted full responsibility for the accident. “I feel bad,” Carpenter commented. “I certainly wasn’t trying to take him out. I knew he had been working the inside. I was struggling and I was going to try the low side that time. I didn’t know he was that far in there. My spotter was trying to tell me he was there but it was too late. I was coming down.

“My apologies. I definitely wouldn’t have appreciated that if I’d been in his position, but at the same time it wasn’t intentional. Hopefully, Juan and I can talk about it without getting my butt kicked.”

Four hectic weeks in a row of IndyCar racing come to an end in Canada next weekend on Toronto’s street circuit with a ‘double-header’ on Saturday and Sunday. If either Hunter-Reay or Pagenaud are going to beat Team Penske to this year’s championship they must have strong races in Toronto.