BIRMINGHAM, Ala. - Andretti Autosport remained perfect on the year Sunday when defending IndyCar Series champion Ryan Hunter-Reay snapped Penske Racing's winning streak at Barber Motorsports Park.
The win came at one of Hunter-Reay's worst tracks, which just so happened to be where his Penske rivals dominated. Headed into the weekend, Helio Castroneves and Will Power had won every pole and all three races since IndyCar's 2010 debut on the picturesque permanent road course.
But Hunter-Reay proved to be a credible threat for the victory when he beat both Power and Castroneves for the pole, raced both hard for the lead during a middle portion of the race, then held off Scott Dixon to give Andretti and Chevrolet wins in the season's first two races.
"Several times in the off-season, I said our biggest weaknesses were the permanent road courses like Barber and Sonoma, and the big super speedways like Texas and Fontana," Hunter-Reay said. "The guys gave me a great car. I had more pressure than anything bringing a car home that I knew was capable of winning. That was the biggest pressure."
In delivering at a track where his previous best finish was 12th, Hunter-Reay showed last year's championship was no fluke. And he proved he can bounce back after a disappointing race: Mechanical problems in the season-opener at St. Pete caused him to finish 18th in a race teammate James Hinchcliffe won.
It was Hunter-Reay's 10th career victory, and he put the No. 1 car into Victory Lane at an IndyCar race for the first time since Sebastien Bourdais won at Mexico City in 2007. He also moved up 15 spots in the standings to third.
"It really shows that we're a threat every weekend — that's what we need to be to win championships, is be a threat every weekend," Hunter-Reay said.
Hunter-Reay had to hold off Scott Dixon at the end, and Dixon settled for second for the fourth consecutive year at Barber.
"I'm going to go buy a bridesmaid's dress tonight and party pretty hard," joked Dixon, who had to charge through the field at St. Pete to finish fifth. "It's still good points. It's good at the minute, but you know, it would really be nice to win at this place sometime."
Castroneves was third and thrilled to take over the IndyCar points lead.
"You have to enjoy the moment, but work for it," he said. "Those points are very valuable if you are thinking about the long-term. Last year the championship was lost by, what, (four) points? So you got to take as it comes. We've got to keep putting ourselves in those opportunities and the win is going to come. With that, I'm going to add more points."
Charlie Kimball, Dixon's teammate at Chip Ganassi Racing, was a career-best fourth as Honda split the top four with Chevrolet one race after Chevy swept the podium.
"I think Chip said it best when he said it's my third season, it's time to start winning," said Kimball, who with three laps led Sunday is the only Ganassi driver to lead laps this season.
"Our expectation is to be consistently in the top five, qualify consistently in the top 10, and come away from the season with a podium and a race win or two."
Power, the two-time defending race winner, wound up a surprising fifth after failing to contend all weekend. His Penske team tried initially to complete the race on an alternate two-stop strategy, but never got the yellow flag needed to make it work.
"We couldn't get in the right slot and then committed to a different strategy," Power said. "We thought we had a good plan and just needed a yellow at any point after Lap 31. Unfortunately, it didn't come and we fought for the fifth-place finish. It isn't exactly what we wanted to get out of the weekend, but it is still a good points day and gets us closer to the top."
AJ Allmendinger ran seventh for most of his IndyCar debut but finished 19th after stalling his car during his final pit stop. But he was praised repeatedly by team owner Roger Penske, even after the mistake in the pits.
"Finish this and just learn, learn, learn. You are doing fine," Penske radioed Allmendinger.
Despite a showing that was praised by Penske and Castroneves, Allmendinger was frustrated with his finish in his first open-wheel race since 2006.
"I've got to improve on everything; 19th isn't good enough. I've just got to improve on everything," he said. "I've got to be a lot better than that; 19th isn't going to cut it, whether this is my first time or not."
Other frustrated drivers Sunday were St. Pete winner Hinchcliffe, who never got a chance to contend for a second consecutive victory, and four-time IndyCar champion Dario Franchitti.
A poor qualifying result put Hinchcliffe at the back of the field at the start, where he was stuck in heavy traffic when the green flag waved. As cars jockeyed for position on the first lap, Graham Rahal and Oriol Servia made contact that collected Hinchcliffe and damaged his car. It left him with what he believed to be a tire issue, but the caution period wasn't long enough for IndyCar officials to tow him back to pit lane.
So Hinchcliffe's disabled vehicle sat broken down on the course as the race went on around him. His Andretti Autosport team was powerless to do anything except wait for another caution flag to get Hinchcliffe towed back to them so they could attempt a repair.
They never got another yellow flag, and Hinchcliffe was stuck the entire race sitting inside his idling car. When it became clear his day was over with roughly 20 laps remaining, he stood up in the cockpit and did an exaggerated stretch that showed some humour in what was clearly a frustrating afternoon — he ran just three laps and left Alabama with a last-place finish.
"It was frustrating to sit there for 75 laps, watching everybody else go around, when you can 't do anything," said Hinchcliffe, who joked if he'd followed NASCAR champion Brad Keselowski's lead and taken his cellphone in the car "I could have at least played Angry Birds or something. I stayed out there the last 15 laps with the safety crew, who are awesome by the way — they were trying everything to get me back."
Dixon could understand Hinchcliffe's frustration and called on IndyCar to make a clear rule about towing cars back to pit lane. He was left on the track for most of last year's Long Beach race and said a fan had to bring him an umbrella for shade.
But in leaving the cars on the course, IndyCar is preventing teams from attempting to get back on track and collect points.
"The rules state, they will tow you back till the last 10 laps of the race, so I don't know what the deal is with that," Dixon said. "I know I was (mad) when that happened to me, and Hinch should be as well. There's a whole lot of the race to go. I thought they were going to tow him back, but we already had a yellow ... I think they get worried about these yellows being too long.
"It needs to be in the rule book or they need to tow you back."
IndyCar said Hinchcliffe had a broken wheel and series officials didn't want to risk further damaging his car by towing it back.
"At the same time, we were getting ready to go green as the track was clear, so Race Control made the decision to leave the No. 27 car, and try to bring it back during the next yellow, which never happened," IndyCar said in a statement.
Franchitti, meanwhile, had a second consecutive disastrous race. He went to pit lane 41 laps into the race with an electrical issue after driving from the back of the field into the top-10.
He wound up 25th and is last in the IndyCar Series standings. Through two races, Franchitti is easily off to the worst start of his career; he wrecked early in the season-opener to leave St. Pete last in points for the first time in IndyCar. Franchitti's previous worst start was 2005 when an engine failure in the opener at Homestead caused him to leave the race ranked 18th in the standings.
"We had a header problem and that led to some electrical issues that took out the clutch," Franchitti said. "The guys worked real hard to get the car back together. Tough day for us."