Ryan Hunter-Reay took his second consecutive victory on the Milwaukee Mile – and moved to second in the points toward a potential second straight IZOD IndyCar Series crown – with a controlled performance in the Milwaukee IndyFest.
"The team did just awesome today," said Hunter-Reay. "We had varying levels of grip through the whole race, different levels of balance, and we just stuck with it. The other guys (Castroneves and Sato) had such great cars. I thought we might have not had a good enough car to win it, and we just pushed through in the end. We had the balance we needed."
Hunter-Reay, whose 2012 championship campaign was kick-started by his victory in last year's Milwaukee race, was a threat right from the start, although the race was given a twist when several cars took advantage of an early caution to pit under yellows and go off-sequence.
Those included Takuma Sato and Helio Castroneves, and for Sato, the strategy worked well enough for the Japanese driver to lead almost half of the race.
A big moment late in his penultimate stint prompted Sato to pit under green, and when the rest of the lead group were able to pit under caution and retain the lead lap a couple of laps later, he was knocked out of contention.
"The car was so strong in clean air and very strong in traffic as well," Sato related. "We were really happy with the whole balance of the car in the middle stint, but then unfortunately there was such a sudden loss of the rear grip toward the end of the race and I got high and lost track position. We thought there was an issue so we decided to pit as soon as our pit window opened and then try to charge back with fresh tires. But then the yellow came out and that was very bad timing for us, because it put us behind those who hadn't pitted yet. They were able to pit and get ahead of us which is why we lined up in seventh. Then they had fresher tires, too, so it was really tough to pass them back."
Castroneves, on the other hand, was able to take advantage of the final yellow to get back onto sequence with Hunter-Reay, although he never looked fast enough in the final stint to pose a threat to the Andretti car.
In the final laps, Castroneves's main concern was keeping Penske teammate Will Power behind him, and the pair had a fright late on when a speculative lunge from Power almost ended in contact. They escaped unscathed, and Castroneves' pleasure at climbing from the rear of the field to second was given a further boost by the fact that Marco Andretti, who came into the weekend placed second in the championship, lost a tonne of time in the pits after suffering an electrical problem and finished 74 laps down.
“You know, I was a little upset with traffic because we're talking about 10 laps to go and I'm like, come on guys. It's not necessary to stay there, or just let's move a little bit, or crack the throttle. When I saw him [Power] there I'm like, whoa! Then my spotter said he said, ‘Inside, inside,'' – sorry Rick, but I'm already moving! But at the end of the day it was a great day for Team Penske for second and third. Good job, Will, and now we've got to keep moving on.”
"It was a great day for us," added the Brazilian, who is the only driver left who has completed every lap this season. "Starting from the back, it was tough. Yesterday I stayed late talking to Jonathan (Diuguid), my engineer, on what we were going to do with the car. It definitely paid off. We were a little conservative and we had to be patient. It's not a win, but you know what, I'm very, very happy."
Power's third place represented the Australian's first podium finish of the season, with EJ Viso and James Hinchcliffe rounding out the top five. He admitted that his late run-in with Castroneves was closer than he intended.
“I was close. I wanted to race him very cleanly because he's leading the championship, but if it's an easy pass, I'll go for it. But that was like, 'Man, I don't want to take you out! Don't just squeeze me that tight!'" Power related. "But it was still a good result for Penske. Helio continues to get good points and it's cool to get the Verizon 12 car up on the podium.
"In situations like that, obviously if I was right there with him in the points, I could be a lot more aggressive. But hey man, at Team Penske it's all about the team and we've got to keep that in mind.”
First of the Honda-powered drivers was Scott Dixon, whose sixth place, coupled with an eighth for Dario Franchitti, represented a decent return for the Ganassi team on a day where both started from the rear of the field and were forced to rely on strategy rather than pace to make any headway.
"Obviously we didn't have a great qualifying effort and then we took the engine change penalty before the race. We started in the back, made some good progress, but it was difficult to pass," Franchitti noted. "The guys made good calls to keep me in the hunt but keeping the car pointed straight was a challenge. To pass people was very tough. The cars are so close, so the series might be a victim of their own success right now. We need to start allowing something to differentiate when guys get it right and wrong."
1. (4) Ryan Hunter-Reay, Dallara-Chevy, 250, Running
2. (17) Helio Castroneves, Dallara-Chevy, 250, Running
3. (3) Will Power, Dallara-Chevy, 250, Running
4. (5) E.J. Viso, Dallara-Chevy, 250, Running
5. (2) James Hinchcliffe, Dallara-Chevy, 250, Running
6. (11) Scott Dixon, Dallara-Honda, 250, Running
7. (15) Takuma Sato, Dallara-Honda, 250, Running
8. (23) Dario Franchitti, Dallara-Honda, 250, Running
9. (13) Justin Wilson, Dallara-Honda, 249, Running
10. (7) Tony Kanaan, Dallara-Chevy, 249, Running
11. (8) Josef Newgarden, Dallara-Honda, 249, Running
12. (9) Simon Pagenaud, Dallara-Honda, 249, Running
13. (6) Sebastian Saavedra, Dallara-Chevy, 248, Running
14. (20) Ed Carpenter, Dallara-Chevy, 248, Running
15. (18) Ryan Briscoe, Dallara-Chevy, 248, Running
16. (24) Graham Rahal, Dallara-Honda, 247, Running
17. (21) Charlie Kimball, Dallara-Honda, 246, Running
18. (12) James Jakes, Dallara-Honda, 245, Running
19. (19) Ana Beatriz, Dallara-Honda, 242, Running
20. (1) Marco Andretti, Dallara-Chevy, 176, Mechanical
21. (10) Tristan Vautier, Dallara-Honda, 173, Mechanical
22. (14) Sebastien Bourdais, Dallara-Chevy, 152, Mechanical
23. (16) Alex Tagliani, Dallara-Honda, 146, Mechanical
24. (22) Simona De Silvestro, Dallara-Chevy, 69, Contact