Did he or didn't he?
That was the question that dominated the post-race conversation after Ryan Hunter-Reay jumped into the lead during a restart with five laps to go and sped to victory in the Grand Prix of Baltimore on Sunday afternoon.
Well, Hunter-Reay certainly did take advantage of a late caution to dash past Ryan Briscoe and keep the IZOD/IndyCar points championship in doubt going into the final race of the season in Fontana, Calif., on Sept. 15. But some of the drivers that finished behind him — including Briscoe and overall points leader Will Power — seemed convinced that he illegally "jumped the restart."
Power, who won the inaugural Baltimore Grand Prix a year ago, made that charge soon after he got out of the sixth-place car, but conceded that he would have done the same thing under the circumstances.
"You're going for the championship, right?" he said.
Here's what happened: The race was restarting after the eighth caution of the day and the cars were supposed to pair up as they moved into an "acceleration zone" and approached the flagman who controls the race. The leader is usually the first to accelerate upon crossing into the zone and then the green flag comes out for everyone else, but Briscoe apparently was still waiting for Hunter-Reay to pair up when the race went to green and Hunter-Reay shot past him.
Hunter-Reay wasn't apologizing afterward, since there had been other instances earlier in the race when the green flag came out the same way.
"On the restart thing, every time I came out of the chicane (a series of turns to reduce speed), the flagger was sitting there getting ready to wave it 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 boom, the green was out and I think he was looking out for his peripheral at me and waiting for me. The flag was green."
It didn't seem so clear-cut to Briscoe and his team owner, Roger Penske, who asked race officials to review the restart, but they ruled that the quick move by Hunter-Reay was within the rules.
"When it's green they can go," said IndyCar director of competition and racing Beaux Barfield. "The bottom line is, it's certainly unfortunate for Ryan (Briscoe) and Penske (Racing). I watched it, and it certainly appeared — when you just look at it in real time — like a jump start."
However, when officials reviewed it more closely, Barfield said they determined that the green flag was out when Hunter-Reay punched the accelerator. He would not speculate on why Briscoe was slow to accelerate when he crossed into the acceleration zone, but seemed to imply that the leader simply got caught napping.
"When you get to that first cone, he's completely free — Briscoe was the leader — to go before the green flag comes out," Barfield said. "That probably further compounds either their issues or the fact that he got hung out to dry and it was a non-call."
During the post-race news conference, Briscoe still did not seem satisfied with that explanation, since he felt that Hunter-Reay had failed to move into the proper position for the restart.
"The fact is, you're supposed to pair up," he said. "He hung back about two car lengths out of the chicane and then he accelerated from the two car lengths back before I accelerated and that's not how the restarts work."
Later, Briscoe tweeted that it was "BS + not what we agreed at the drivers meeting."
Even though Power finished sixth, Hunter-Reay's smooth move also could have a very significant bearing on the points championship, in which Power holds a 17-point lead over Hunter-Reay and enters the Fontana race with far less success on oval tracks than the challenger.
Once he had time to think it through, Power seemed to put the blame for the whole situation on the flagman.
"Basically, a leader has a zone to go from a first cone — there's a cone distance, and if the leader has not gone by the last cone, the green is thrown," he said. "That's why it was absurd what happened, how it was happening."
Hunter-Reay was sitting right beside Power when he said that, and couldn't resist.
"I liked it, though," he said.
Read more from columnist Peter Schmuck in his blog, "The Schmuck Stops Here" on baltimoresun.com and listen when he co-hosts "The Week in Review" Fridays at noon on WBAL (1090AM) and wbal.com.