FONTANA, Calif. -- For a long time on Saturday night, this looked like the IndyCar Series championship that nobody wanted to win.
Team Penske's Will Power, the perennially snake-bitten Australian, crashed on the 55th lap of the MAVTV 500 at Auto Club Speedway. That seemingly handed the title to his rival, Ryan Hunter-Reay of Andretti Autosport, who merely needed to finish fifth to clinch the crown.
But for lap after lap, Hunter-Reay ran around the 2-mile oval in sixth place, falling farther behind fifth place every tour.
Meanwhile, Power sat in the Penske engineering coach in the paddock, remotely watching it all unfold, his championship fate completely out of his hands.
A series of late-race events finally turned the title tide Hunter-Reay's way. First Alex Tagliani slowed on the course with a mechanical problem, bringing out the pace car and elevating RHR into that critical fifth place. He suffered a scare when Tony Kanaan crashed with nine laps to go and the race was red-flagged. From there, Hunter-Reay made a good final restart and raced hard to the end, running as high as third before finally settling for fourth place in the race and winning his first IndyCar season championship. He beat Power by three points in the standings.
As a side note, Ed Carpenter passed Dario Franchitti for the race win on the final lap. But attention was firmly riveted on the battle between Power and Hunter-Reay, which was the seventh consecutive IndyCar Series championship clash to go absolutely down to the wire.
No other racing series consistently delivers the same kind of drama, and does it without the benefit of an artificial playoff system.
"You can't beat Indy car racing," said victorious team owner Michael Andretti. "I'm telling you, it's the best in the world."
And now it has a new American champion -- the first since Sam Hornish Jr. in 2006, and the first in a unified Indy car series since Al Unser Jr. way back in 1994.
Not many put Hunter-Reay on their short list of championship contenders at the start of the season. But by earning a series-high four race wins with a series of gritty performances, the 31-year-old Floridian genuinely established himself as a top Indy car driver.
"He did it, man!" exclaimed Andretti, himself an American Indy car champion. "He just did a hell of a job in the end. When he needs to step up, he steps up, and he won that championship. I'm so proud of him."
The championship also showed that Andretti Autosport is officially back as one of the IndyCar Series' top teams. The driver trio of Hunter-Reay, Marco Andretti and James Hinchcliffe may not have the experience that AA's golden era lineup of Dario Franchitti, Tony Kanaan, Dan Wheldon and Bryan Herta possessed, but there is a similar upbeat camaraderie.
Under the Andretti Green Racing banner, Michael Andretti won championships in 2004 (with Kanaan), '05 (Wheldon) and '07 (Franchitti). But this was the first one that he could truly take ownership of.
"It's the best one," he said. "This one means the most. There was a change in ownership and a rebuilding process. These things don't happen overnight. We're constantly trying to make the right personnel changes, putting people in right spot. Felt we started to get our mojo back in the middle of last year and thought we could contend for a championship this year. Ryan's the one that came out of it and did a hell of a good job.
"All year, we were pursuing Will most of the time. Then we had a nice [points] lead, but we lost it, so we had to put our heads down and make it back up again.
"Tonight, the pressure was on all the way to the last lap," he added. "It took everything we had to keep our composure and Ryan drove his butt off when he needed to and got the job done. It was a crazy, crazy night and that's exactly what we told him going into the race. It actually played out the way I thought it would -- it turned out to be a game of survival. We did a good enough job to get the car into the top five and Ryan did one hell of a job from there."
Hunter-Reay's story is that of a classic hard-luck racer turned good. He broke into Indy cars in the CART series in 2003 and scored a win as a rookie in rainy conditions on the street course at Surfers Paradise, Australia.
The following year, driving for the team now known as HVM, he scored a dominant win at the Milwaukee Mile. But halfway through 2005, he parted ways with Rocketsports Racing -- his third team in three years -- and spent the next two and a half years in limbo while the American open-wheel landscape shifted and stabilized.
Hunter-Reay's career lifeline came from Bobby Rahal, who brought him in in mid-'07 to replace Jeff Simmons after a series of disappointing results. Within a year, Hunter-Reay delivered a race win at Watkins Glen, but the team's sponsorship from a consortium of ethanol producers was withdrawn at the end of the 2008 season and Rahal temporarily shuttered his Indy car team.
After a patchy 2009 with Vision Racing and AJ Foyt Racing, RHR was thrown another career lifeline from Andretti. A partial campaign was promised, but when Hunter-Reay finished second in the season opener and won a couple of races later at Long Beach, Andretti found a way to keep the No. 28 program going full time.
His effort was rewarded Thursday, when Hunter-Reay signed a multiyear contract extension with Andretti Autosport. The rest of the dream scenario was finalized Saturday night with a title.
"This is unbelievable," he said. "I can't put it into words the feeling -- how hard we had to fight tonight. I'm still in almost fight mode. We just kept coming back and we really earned this one.
"For all the bad luck we had this year, to get it feels so good," he added. "This is a dream come true. This is what I've wanted since I was 6 years old. So it hasn't all settled in yet, but, my gosh, it feels amazing. This is what racing is about -- what sports are about. I'm going to let this one sit in for a second and really enjoy it."
Meanwhile, what can you say about Power? At the start of May, when he had just reeled off three consecutive race wins, it looked like he would finally come through with the IndyCar championship that has eluded him the past couple of years.
With Ganassi Racing's Franchitti and Scott Dixon suffering through curiously inconsistent and sometimes uncompetitive seasons, Power's path to the championship looked even clearer. Until Andretti and Hunter-Reay entered the picture.
We've been trying to convince ourselves for the past couple of years that Power was fully up to speed and comfortable on ovals. He finally scored a race win at Texas last year, but that's one oval triumph in 34 tries.
This year, there were only four oval races on the IndyCar Series schedule. But once again, they proved to be Power's Achilles' heel.
"It's definitely frustrating that three years in a row I convincingly won the road course championship, and it's very obvious that the ovals ... I just don't know why I can't put my finger on one particular thing that I don't do right," Power said.
The entire Penske team went the extra mile to try to keep the championship in Power's hands. Twenty crew members swarmed over his wrecked car, enabling him to get back out to run 12 more laps that forced Hunter-Reay to earn an additional position on the track to win the championship. But it was not enough.
"There's no use in dwelling on it," he added. "Racing is tough. IndyCar in particular is tough. It's easy to go and point fingers and all that as to why we didn't win, but at the end of the day, Hunter-Reay did a very solid job. He won more races than anyone. He won on ovals and road courses, and he's definitely a deserving champion. He's just an all-around good driver."
The question is, what's next for Power. With Hunter-Reay now established as a series champion and a threat on any kind of racetrack, can Power up his game and finally claim that elusive championship crown after three crushing disappointments?
One man thinks so: his latest rival.
"I think Will is one of the great talents there has been in IndyCar in a very long time," Hunter-Reay said. "His talent level, and what he does on the track, especially some of these road courses and street circuits. ... He certainly would be a deserving champion if he won it.
"But we really had a breakout year. We fought for this thing and we really earned it."