Ryan Hunter-Reay didn't know what to think or feel after he won Honda Indy Toronto on July 8. It was his third consecutive victory and moved him into the lead of the IZOD IndyCar Series points chase.
Will Power, an Australian driver who won the Baltimore Grand Prix last year and finished runner-up in the points standings in 2011, also won three straight races this season. But Hunter-Reay is the first American in six years to achieve that feat, and he has a chance to become the first U.S. champion of the series since Sam Hornish Jr. in 2006.
"What has shocked me is that I don't feel a big sense of relief," Hunter-Reay said during a recent conference call. "I feel hungrier."
The Andretti Autosport driver has a week off to enjoy the victory before turning his gaze to the Edmonton Indy street race, a fact Hunter-Reay said he might like to change given the situation.
"With the momentum we have, you'd like to be at the track," he said.
But the opportunity to become the first driver to win four straight IndyCar races since Sebastien Bourdais did it during the 2006 Champ Car season will have to wait for now. With a little time off from the track, Hunter-Reay traveled Monday to Baltimore, where he finished eighth in the 2011 Baltimore Grand Prix — a race that he said "wasn't easy at all."
"But it was beautiful, right on the water," Hunter-Reay said. "I'm looking forward to getting back. Until now, I hadn't heard they were going to make changes to the course to make it more challenging. As it was, it was one of the most physical street races we had. Everyone talked about how physical it was. But we'll see. I just hope it's there for years to come."
On Monday, Hunter-Reay said with the way Baltimore handled the event last year, he expects a great crowd and a great race. Hopefully for him, he said, it will mean coming away with some points to widen his lead atop the IndyCar standings.
"Each one of these last five races are as important as the finale in Fontana, [Calif.]," he said. "Not only if you can get a win, but get some points too, it's crucial for us. It's one of the crucial tracks for us. We were quick here last year so hopefully we can keep that going.
"You want to be going to [the finale in] Fontana in a good mood. It would be nice to have a nice little cushion ... but I don't expect to have much of a buffer with guys like Will Power, [Helio] Castroneves and [Dario] Franchitti behind me."
Being an American excelling in the sport is no small feat. For years, one of the primary storylines in IndyCar racing centered on the lack of successful American drivers.
Indy Racing League founder Tony George said one of the driving forces behind his formation of the IRL was to have American drivers on American ovals. But foreign drivers excelled there, too, and road courses worked their way back into the schedule leading to the present-day IndyCar Series.
Hunter-Reay is aware of the history and how he felt about American drivers as he was growing up in Florida.
"My dad took me to the Indy car races in Miami," he said. "I watched as a fan. I was focused on American drivers. I don't know why, but I liked to watch Michael Andretti,Al Unser Jr., and Bobby Rahal, even Jimmy Vasser in 1996, when he won the championship.
"Being an American driver isn't something I'm focused on, but I'm glad and proud to be carrying the American flag on the podium after races. I hope there is some kid out there watching me that way, now that I'm doing well."
For Hunter-Reay the time is now. After bouncing between teams earlier in his career, the 31-year-old driver signed a deal to remain in Andretti Autosport's No. 28 Dallara-Chevrolet through the 2012 season.
"I just finally broke through," said the driver, whose three wins this year are two less than his IndyCar-Champ Car career total prior to 2012. "I have a very strong team capable of winning every weekend. We're fighting for every lap of the race.
"I've been called 'up-and-coming' for awhile because I've not been able to become established with the teams I've been with before. To win you have to have a great relationship with the guys you're working with. Finally, I've found a home."
This is his third year with Andretti Autosport. It's the first time he has been able to work with the same team for more than a year at this level.
"I'm a sponge," he said during a phone conversation a few days before his Toronto victory. "It's nine years down the road and my experiences have made me smarter and more patient. And I know what I want from a race car. I know what I need to go faster..
"Communication between my engineer, Ray Gosselin, and me is really easy. He knows what I want and I know what he wants. And then, with Michael [Andretti], a legend, in the stands directing, well, it couldn't get much better for me."
His game plan in Toronto was to go hard, but bring the car home in one piece. The plan worked to perfection.
"I don't think Ryan should do anything different. I don't think the team should do anything different," Andretti told The Canadian Press after the victory in Toronto. "We should just continue to do our job. If everybody does their job, we should be OK. If there's no mistakes made the rest of the year, I think we have a good shot at winning the championship."
Now there are street courses this Sunday in Edmonton and again in Baltimore, Sept. 2, road courses in Mid-Ohio, Aug. 5, and Sonoma, Calif., Aug. 26, and an oval to round out the season in Fontana on Sept 15.
"We're looking to stay strong," Hunter-Reay said. "It's all about the points and the big picture. If we can finish in the top six on our bad days and win on our good days, we will be contending for the title. But there are five races left — five races and a championship sound like an eternity right now."