BALTIMORE, Maryland—One day before Sunday’s Grand Prix of Baltimore Will Power was asked if his quest for the IZOD IndyCar Series title was firmly in his control. After all, the Team Penske driver was starting on the pole while his nearest championship pursuer, Andretti Autosport’s Ryan Hunter-Reay, didn’t even advance out of his first qualification group and qualified way back in 12th place on a street course where it is very difficult to pass.
“That doesn’t matter, man,” Power told Fox59.com. “If it’s wet and a mixed up race that can help him out. It’s funny how things work out. I’m not even going to think about anyone else. I know what I’m going to do and that is focus on the job, try to be mistake-free and see what we can get.”
Power’s premonition came true, however.
He was running away from the field leading the first 18 laps before it began to rain. One problem – it was not raining hard enough to make the entire course wet. So a decision had to be made by Power and Team Penske President Tim Cindric whether to pit for rain tires or take a chance and stay on the racing slicks.
Power dove onto pit lane to put on the rain tires while Hunter-Reay’s team made the decision to stay on the track taking over the lead on Lap 13. Team owner Michael Andretti determined that it would not rain for long and if Hunter-Reay could keep from hitting the fence on the wet surface on racing slicks that when it stopped raining he would be in great position to win the race.
And that is exactly what happened as the key decision of the race allowed Hunter-Reay to leap-frog from 10th starting position (he moved up two spots when two drivers that qualified ahead of him incurred 10-grid spot penalties for unapproved engine chances) to the lead in less than 20 laps.
Hunter-Reay would go on to score his fourth victory of the season by winning Sunday’s Grand Prix of Baltimore. Power went on to finish sixth and that means his championship lead over Hunter-Reay has gone from 37 points to just 17 heading into the September 16 season-finale at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, California.
“Staying out in the wet on the dry tires was massive for us,” Hunter-Reay said. “It was a big gamble – a very risky gamble – it paid off for us. The next key was having really good restarts.”
On Saturday, Fox59.com asked Hunter-Reay if starting so far back in the field he would need some bad luck for Power and he didn’t want to talk about that. Instead, he was focused on his own race.
“These street circuits, especially when you have some weather involved, it’s anybody’s race,” Hunter-Reay said. “I was pushing 110 percent the whole time. I knew the championship was on the line today. What a day, man, it’s so cool.
“I never asked where Will Power was on the radio. I didn’t ask what position he was in and I didn’t care. I just knew we had to do one thing and that was win. I’ve learned a lot this season about hanging in there when things didn’t look right heading into a race weekend and I’ve had some not so good cars and then have a great race. You have to believe that on race day things are going to come good if you keep hammering at it and that is what we did.”
In the process, Power’s premonition has turned into fear.
“It was just, the weather -- it's just hard to make the decision which way to go there,” Power said. “Basically, there's a bit of confusion on the radio. I said I'll pit and then I said I'll wait one lap and in the meantime Tim (Cindric) was saying pit. I think we were talking at the same time and he told me to pit and we missed that; I think that would have helped a lot. It's just unfortunate.
“It's every weekend, we are the quickest. Every weekend we are not just the quickest, but by a bunch, and circumstances seem to prevent us from winning. So that can become frustrating when you're the quickest guy in town. When you look at the last three races and even when you look at the run total leading, Edmonton we were the quickest and got the engine change and got back to third, so was a good day anyway. Mid Ohio, pole, quickest again, lots in the pits. Sonoma, lost it on the yellow. And today lost it with the weather.
“But, we are here and we have a 17 point lead and it's going to be interesting in a 500 mile race. Maybe it will be the first, last race that I finish, because every year, I get crashed out. So I'm determined this time to just finish the last race and finish it as the leader of the championship.”
Power clinched the bonus points for leading the most laps – two times for 22 trips around the 2.04-mile, 13-turn street course around the Inner Harbor area of Baltimore. Hunter-Reay led five times for 13 laps – one lap less than rookie driver Simon Pagenaud’s 14 laps led.
But it was Power’s teammate, Ryan Briscoe, in the lead during another decisive portion of the race. He was up by 1.0089 seconds over Hunter-Reay on Lap 65 before Charlie Kimball’s Dallara/Honda stopped on the course at the exit of Turn 3.
Five laps later, the field lined up for a restart and Hunter-Reay laid back a few car lengths from Briscoe’s Dallara/Chevrolet for a side-by-side restart through the treacherous chicane area of the Pratt Street Straightaway.
When the green flag waved, Hunter-Reay nailed the accelerator and zoomed past Briscoe. Team Penske charged Hunter-Reay had jumped the restart and asked INDYCAR president Beaux Barfield to review it. Barfield determined Hunter-Reay had a legal restart and simply anticipated the green flag better than Briscoe.