When rain began to fall as forecast in Sunday's Grand Prix of Baltimore, Ryan Hunter-Reay's car owner Michael Andretti had a game plan.
Andretti's bold decision to stick with the treadless slicks used on a dry track — combined with perhaps an even bolder move by Hunter-Reay to seize the lead on a restart with five laps to go — allowed the driver to pick up his fourth IZOD IndyCar Series victory of the season and keep alive his hopes for a series championship.
Hunter-Reay crossed the finish line 1.4391 seconds ahead of Team Penske driver Ryan Briscoe and hard-charging rookie Simon Pagenaud, who finished third. Hunter-Reay is now within 17 points of points leader Will Power. And for the seventh straight year, the IZOD IndyCar points championship will be decided in the final race of the season, this time on the oval track in Fontana, Calif.
“The race was crazy,” Andretti said. “We took a little bit of a gamble, but we thought, most likely, the rain was going to stop. And Ryan, we just told him to keep the car on the track and in the end, he had two really difficult restarts and he did them flawlessly, and that's what won the race.”
Briscoe had the lead under caution on Lap 69, and pole-sitter Power, who had lost a dominant lead when he stopped for rain tires and then fallen all the way to 17th when he stopped to change back to slicks, had moved up to fifth. Both were in good position for the side-by-side restart on Lap 70, but Hunter-Reay left everyone behind.
“You jumped or Briscoe didn't go,” Power said to Hunter-Reay in the post-race interview session.
Immediately after the race, Hunter-Reay said, “I was going to win or hit the wall.” But in reply to Power, he offered an explanation.
“I'd been watching the flagger during the race, and they were waving it right as the first row paired up, especially later in the race,” Hunter-Reay said. “And I knew that. I came out of the chicane and got right next to Briscoe and took my foot off the gas and then put it back on. He might have seen it as one motion. But the green flag was out, and I went. I definitely jumped out and I'm happy about it. But, you know, it [stunk] for him, for sure.”
Added Briscoe: “I honestly didn't see the green flag, because I was honestly just waiting for him to pair up because we came off the chicane and he was hanging back. ... The next thing, they just drove by me.”
There was no denying the benefit of Andretti's pit calculations, either. When the rain began to fall, he radioed to Hunter-Reay: “Let's just stay on what we have and see what happens. We're going for a championship. If we're going to do it, let's do it. Coming in fourth or fifth isn't going to do anything for us.”
Hunter-Reay and KV Racing Chevrolet driver Rubens Barrichello, who finished fifth, were the only two among the top 10 finishers who didn't change to rain tires.
“We thought sprinkles [not heavy rain], and we lived through it,” Hunter-Reay said.
The inaugural winner of the Baltimore race, Power demonstrated his car's speed all weekend, leading every practice session and winning the pole. But Power and his Team Penske team struggled with the tire decision, and it cost him.
“It's hard to make a decision which way to go,” Power said. “I said I'll pit and then I said I'll wait a lap, and in the meantime [Team Penske president] 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 was unfortunate.”
A good crowd, though not as big as last year's, filled the stands and appeared to enjoy the activities around the Grand Prix. The event's general manager, Tim Mayer, said he is pleased with the results.
“All the vendors and all the taxes are paid,” Mayer said. “We had a good walk-up despite the weather forecast. I'm happy. This is our 90-day miracle. There was tremendous pressure to make it work, and we did. Now, we can make it work very well next year.”
Asked whether the race, which nearly didn't return after two previous organizing groups failed, is coming back, Mayer replied: “We're set up for the future. We have a five-year contract. Why would we work this hard for one year?”
The crowd didn't run for cover when the rain came and were rewarded with a lot of action.
“It was a war zone out there today,” Marco Andretti said after finishing 14th.
Sometimes it seemed that way. There were nine caution flags for 24 of the 75 laps. Seven drivers led the race, including Pagenaud, who was running fourth before a restart on Lap 37 when he burst to the lead.
“That was pretty cool,” said the Sam Schmidt Motorsports driver. “I think I just timed it perfectly and it's one of those deals — sometimes you get a little lucky and sometimes you don't. I want to say this time I was just 100 percent perfect. I had a lot of speed to go into Turn 1, and wow, I was braking in Turn 1, I'm like, I think I'm [in first place].”
It lasted for 14 laps, until Hunter-Reay took advantage of Pagenaud's pit stop and began positioning himself for the finish.
“It is an unbelievable day,” Hunter-Reay said. “We had one thing we could do to keep this championship alive and that's win — and we did that. Now we get to go to Fontana, which is an absolute crapshoot. It's an amazing day. You couldn't write the script any better.”