As he clung to his championship chances, Ryan Hunter-Reay was able to see past his selfish motives to the bigger picture.
He knew if he didn’t close the gap on points leader Will Power, there would be no title race in the IndyCar season finale. That, Hunter-Reay understood, would be terrible for a series that’s trying hard to stay relevant on the U.S. sports scene.
“I want it for IndyCar,” Hunter-Reay said last week, after a late-race incident at Sonoma cost him a podium finish and 23 critical points in his race with Power. “The fans deserve to see a championship race, and the series needs a good title race. I really want that for IndyCar.”
He knew his only chance to make it a fight was to win Sunday at Baltimore to close his 36-point deficit to Power. So he woke up Sunday and changed his breakfast routine, looking to change his luck with a bowl of Lucky Charms cereal.
Power could have wrapped up his first IndyCar championship Sunday. Instead, Hunter-Reay’s fourth win of the season has made it a 17-point race headed into the Sept. 15 season finale at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif.
“We still have a shot,” said Hunter-Reay, who responded on the podium to chants of “U.S.A! U.S.A!” by draping himself in the American flag. He’s seeking to become the first American to win the IndyCar championship since Sam Hornish Jr. in 2006.
All sports thrive on drama. Fans don’t gush about lopsided football games, series sweeps or runaway race wins. What captures the imagination is those Game 7-type moments, tension between competitors, even an exploding jet dryer.
So those with a vested interest understand that Power’s plight to finally win a title is compelling, but if the Australian finally pulls it off, they preferred he didn’t get it done a race before the finale.
It’s no different in NASCAR, where series leaders in 2004 introduced the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship format and have tweaked it several times since. There’s a rhythm to the 10-race Chase, and its momentum begins to build in earnest during the summer months when drivers jockey for one of the 12 spots in the field.
It all comes to a head in the 26th race of the season, considered to be the “regular season” finale, when the field is officially set. In an interest to, well, keep it interesting, NASCAR last year turned the last two slots in the field into wild-card berths.
The tweak has worked to perfection as the race to Richmond can be just as exciting as the actual Chase.
Nearly seven hours after Hunter-Reay ensured IndyCar maintained some late-season drama, NASCAR locked down its own share in Atlanta. When Jeff Gordon failed to chase down Denny Hamlin in the closing laps of Sunday night’s race, it meant eight drivers go into Richmond battling for two Chase positions.
Some big names will be left on the sidelines next Saturday night. Four-time NASCAR champion Gordon and Carl Edwards, who lost last year’s championship on a tiebreaker, are both in danger of missing the Chase. Same goes for perennial title favorite Kyle Busch.
Gordon believes Saturday night in Richmond will be wild.
“That race is always intense,” he said. “But when you look at how many guys have to win the points and everything else, I mean, it’s going to be a pretty crazy night.”
He lamented not bumping Hamlin out of the way on the final restart, a move that could have given him a win that would have greatly improved his Chase chances. And Gordon promised not to make that mistake in Richmond, “it’s not going to happen twice,” he vowed.
It’s anything goes from here on out as the stakes are at their highest for both the competitors and their series.
Hunter-Reay was unapologetic for an aggressive late restart that won him the race. Power and others complained he jumped the start, but Hunter-Reay was adamant he did nothing wrong and he had a win to show for his efforts.
And Power had a tongue-in-cheek strategy for making sure he leaves Fontana in two weeks with the title.
“Good news is, if I take Hunter-Reay out in the last race, we crash out together, I win,” Power said.
Sure, he was joking. But just like Gordon’s pledge to be aggressive Saturday night in Richmond, Power hinting he’ll do whatever it takes means both NASCAR and IndyCar have the needed drama down to the wire.