IndyCar champion Ryan Hunter-Reay bounced back from a poor result in the season opener two weeks ago to score an excellent win from pole in round two at Barber Motorsports Park. Hunter-Reay ran away from the field in the opening laps then turned back challenges from Hélio Castroneves and Scott Dixon to win by less than a second from Dixon. Ryan’s well deserved victory made it two in a row for Andretti Autosport after James Hinchcliffe won the opening race of this year’s IndyCar season at St. Petersburg.
Hunter-Reay beat Will Power to the pole at Barber in Alabama and controlled the first half the race, building a lead of almost 10 seconds before the first round of pitstops. Castroneves qualified sixth but jumped to second by making an early first stop while Penske team-mate Power fell back in the opening laps and adopted a two-stop strategy to try to get back into the hunt.
After Hunter-Reay and Castroneves made their second of three stops they rejoined behind new leader Power who was busy conserving fuel in order to try to run the distance on two stops. Thus constrained, Power ceded the lead to Castroneves after the Brazilian passed Hunter-Reay who found himself unable to pass Power until the latter finally made his second stop after 60 of 90 laps.
Meanwhile, Castroneves built a ten-second cushion to Hunter-Reay but had to take Firestone’s harder ‘black’ tyres on his final stop while Hunter-Reay went onto the softer ‘red’ tyres. Taking full advantage of his softer tyres Hunter-Reay rapidly caught Castroneves, outbraking him for the lead with 25 laps to go. Also closing fast at that stage was Scott Dixon who pushed Castroneves down to third a lap later and went after Hunter-Reay.
Over the closing laps Dixon stalked Hunter-Reay but wasn’t able to get close enough to make a move on the leader. Despite a couple of lock-ups under braking Hunter-Reay kept his composure and drove home to win by less than a second.
“I was driving my tail off trying to stay in front of Dixon,” Hunter-Reay said. “Will did a great job staying in front of me on the black tyres. I’m not sure how he did it, but it’s great to get a win early in the season. We’ve never had a car this good at this track.”
Dixon finished second for the fourth year in a row at Barber Motorsports Park. “It was a tough race but we had a strong day,” Dixon remarked. “The car was very quick. I think we had the quickest car out there. We were saving fuel a little bit, but congrats to Hunter-Reay. He did a hell of a job today.”
Castroneves finished some way back in third and took the championship lead from Dixon and Hunter-Reay. “We changed our strategy in the middle of the race and that meant we were on the black tyres at the end,” Castroneves observed. “But that’s the price you pay. We made time on the red tyres in the middle of the race and I thought we would be able to hold on but there were too many laps to go.”
Charlie Kimball turned in his most competitive performance in IndyCar, qualifying fifth and finishing an impressive fourth. “Our car was good all weekend and it came good in the race,” Kimball said. “We had good, clean stops and I just had to get it done on the racetrack.”
Kimball passed Will Power for fourth in the closing laps. “Will was saving fuel at the end and I knew if I could get alongside there were so many marbles I could get by and with him saving fuel I would be able to get away. A lot of credit to Will. He gave me racing room. I used the push-to-pass and the kerb to help the car rotate and it worked perfectly.”
Power had trouble with his fuel map at the start of the race and then got into the dirt on the exit of the first turn, falling from second to seventh. As a result, Penske team boss Tim Cindric decided to shift Power to a two-stop strategy which meant Power had to spend most of the race conserving fuel.
St. Petersburg winner James Hinchcliffe had a tough weekend in Alabama. Hinchcliffe qualified twentieth and was eliminated after he was hit in the tail on the opening lap. The collision knocked off his left rear wheel. Nor did Dario Franchitti have a good weekend, qualifying seventeenth and dropping out early in the race with a broken exhaust header after making steady progress into the top 10.