Ryan Hunter-Reay put in what was arguably one of his strongest race weekend performances in last weekend’s 2018 Verizon IndyCar Series season finale at Sonoma Raceway. The Andretti Autosport driver looked imperious throughout the Grand Prix of Sonoma, winning the race after having started from pole position and also leading the most laps of the race.
Four drivers entered the final race of the season in contention for the championship. Sadly for Hunter-Reay, he was not one of them. He had been ruled out of contention after the previous race at Portland International Raceway; such was the gap between himself and the championship-leader Scott Dixon.
Nevertheless, Ryan entered the weekend hoping to finish the season off as well as possible, especially as he could have played a role in helping his team-mate, Alexander Rossi, steal the title from under Dixon at the last gasp.
The weekend got off to a great start for Ryan. He finished as the fastest driver in the first of two practice sessions on Friday, with what would ultimately be the fastest time of the entire day. He slipped to tenth place in the second session, but the American admitted at the end of the day that he and his #28 Andretti crew had been trialling some extreme setup changes that they would reverse before final practice and qualifying:
“It was a good start to the day; we were P1 this morning and overall.” Hunter-Reay said after on-track action concluded on Friday, “We went to some pretty aggressive changes this afternoon, knowing that Practice 2 was our last opportunity to do it before qualifying – being that you don’t want the car too far off in Practice 3 tomorrow morning. We made some changes, got aggressive with it and it was the wrong way. So, we’ll make some changes and head back to where we were in Practice 1, and hopefully, get the DHL car back to its good form.”
The overnight setup reversal on Hunter-Reay’s #28 Honda went well. In final practice, Ryan was back up to third place on the time-sheets. It was not over yet by any means, either. When qualifying began later on in the day, there was no stopping him. Hunter-Reay would finish fastest in every session he took part in, securing pole position after a mistake from Scott Dixon on his final qualifying lap opened the door for Ryan to take the top spot.
“It was a shootout out there right to the last minute with trying to figure out which tires to go with,” Hunter-Reay said after the session, “but the Firestone reds [alternate tires] were just awesome in the Firestone Fast Six. This No. 28 DHL Honda team did just such a good job putting a great car under me. It’s nice to finally get that pole at Sonoma because we’ve been knocking on the door for it for years, so definitely a good team effort.”
“We’ve been in contention everywhere we go,” Ryan later added, “so hats off to these guys putting a great car under me and I was able to put a lap together when it counted.”
Qualifying may have been a dominating affair for Hunter-Reay, but the race was arguably an even better showing from the American. Ryan essentially had to worry about defending his race-lead twice during the eighty-five lap race. The first came on the initial race start when he got away cleanly on second-placed Dixon before going on the build a multiple-second advantage. The second came on the race restart on lap fifty where, once again, he sprinted away from the rest of the pack and disappeared off into the distance.
In the end, Hunter-Reay would lead an incredible eighty laps of the eighty-five lap race distance; only surrendering the lead during the pit-stop cycles. He would ultimately take the win with a gap of just under three seconds between himself and Dixon.
It was truly a dominating performance, not just during the race, but throughout the entire race weekend. In victory lane, Hunter-Reay would thank his team and sponsors for giving him the tools he needed to put in such a crushing drive, before going on to dedicate the win to his injured fellow-competitor Robert Wickens; who had posted his first personal video update regarding his medical condition just before the race began.
“Today was great.” a delighted Hunter-Reay stated post-race, “I felt like the race just didn’t want to end. I guess that’s what happens when you spend the whole day out front. Any time I needed the pace to put it down, we leapt out to a lead. I was able to maintain that.
“Hats off to this team, DHL, AutoNation, Honda – everyone involved. Honda really gave me great drivability, reliability. The Firestone tires were great. Shout out to Kerry Doughty, CEO of Butterball, fighting cancer at home right now. His name was on the side of our car today – this is a special win for him and we’re honoured to have him with us in spirit.
“Also, a big shout out to Robbie [Robert] Wickens – I want to dedicate that win to him and his fight. It was great to see the video message from him today and, hopefully, he will be back with us as soon as possible.”
Hunter-Reay’s race victory, coupled with a difficult race for Team Penske‘s Josef Newgarden, saw the Andretti driver leap up into fourth place in the final championship standings. The result is his highest placing in the championship standings since he won the 2012 Verizon IndyCar Series.
Ryan will be hoping that he can build off of the momentum of his fantastic end to the season when the 2019 IndyCar Series kicks off on March 10 with the Grand Prix of St. Petersberg. The season will be Hunter-Reay’s tenth with Andretti Autosport and he will be wanting to be in the hunt to secure his second championship victory; a result that, given his recent return to form, is entirely possible.