FONTANA, Calif. — Ryan Hunter-Reay put the American flag back atop the IndyCar podium by snatching the championship away from Will Power in the season finale.
Power, denied for a third consecutive year, was in street clothes watching Saturday night’s finish on television after crashing out early at Auto Club Speedway. His exit from the race meant Hunter-Reay, who entered the race trailing Power by 17 points, had to finish fifth or better to claim his first championship in a major series.
He wound up fourth — becoming the first American since Sam Hornish Jr. in 2006 to win the title — but it certainly wasn’t easy.
Hunter-Reay struggled all week at California, even wrecking in Wednesday’s open test session, and was off at the start of the race. But he picked his way through the field and was on the edge of where he needed to finish as the laps wound down.
Still, a flurry of late cautions made for some hair-raising restarts and a late red-flag that drew the ire or team owner Michael Andretti. Hunter-Reay managed to hang on in a race that was won by Ed Carpenter, another American.
“I raced for my life. I cannot believe we are IndyCar champions. I cannot believe this,” Hunter-Reay said. “My dream has come true.”
Power, an Australian who has finished second in the points three years in a row, visited Hunter-Reay after the finish.
“At the end of the day, Hunter-Reay is a deserving champion, a real fighter,” Power said. “I’ve lost the championship three years in a row. I feel bad for Penske Racing.”
Power crashed 55 laps into the race, spinning hard into the outside wall when his car slipped in a seam in the track. It’s the third consecutive year Power has gone into the finale with the title on the line and had an incident snatch away his chances.
He brushed the wall at Homestead in 2011 and lost the title by five points to Dario Franchitti. Last year, his points lead was gobbled up when another car hit him on pit road in the penultimate race, and he was involved in the 15-car accident that killed Dan Wheldon in the finale.
Power broke his back in that accident in Las Vegas.
“Man, depressing,” Power said after leaving the wreck. “I wish I could care less.”
Power laughed nervously, searching and failing to find the right words to describe his frustration.
“I don’t know what to say. It’s depressing,” he said. “Depressing to lose the championship again that way. Nothing I can say, mate, it’s just depressing. I don’t know what emotion to even feel right now.”
But his Penske team, which has not won a championship since Hornish in 2006, worked furiously to get his car back on the track so he could turn 12 laps and gain more points in the standings. Power had already changed into street clothes, rushed back into his firesuit, and had a total change of attitude when he got back in the car.
“Keep our fingers crossed,” he smiled, his mood completely changed.
Both Power and Hunter-Reay went into the race seeking their first career title, and Power said he watched on TV the closing laps unsure how it would end.
“You never give up hope,” he said. “I was thinking anything is possible in IndyCar. Anything can happen.”