Hunter-Reay wins at Watkins Glen to break Rahal Letterman drought

WATKINS GLEN, N.Y. -- If the summer road-racing swing was expected to shake up the IndyCar Series championship battle, the Camping World Indy Grand Prix at Watkins Glen International certainly played out true to form.

Points leader Scott Dixon made a rare mistake, spinning out while running behind the pace car to nullify what had been a superb two-man race with pole starter Ryan Briscoe.

As a result, the IndyCar Series is celebrating another first-time winner -- its fourth this year -- and he's American, to boot.

Ryan Hunter-Reay scored Rahal Letterman Racing's first IndyCar Series victory in nearly four years, winning the 60-lap road race by 2.4 seconds over Darren Manning and Tony Kanaan.

It was the 27-year-old Floridian's third major open-wheel race win and it marked the end of a long journey back to prominence after his career was nearly ruined by a disastrous half-season with the Rocketsports Champ Car team.

"In '05 when that whole Rocketsports thing went down, it was a horrible experience from the first day to the last day," Hunter-Reay said. "But I told myself to stay strong, never be complacent, and keep pushing as an athlete and a businessman. Things happen for a reason.

"And now I'm next."

Hunter-Reay instantly boosted RLR's competitiveness when he joined the team midway through the 2007 season, replacing Jeff Simmons. He qualified in the top six for the past three IndyCar Series road races, but he and Bobby Rahal's team was plagued by bad luck, culminating in a pair of no-fault (as opposed to no harm, no foul) accidents at Texas and Iowa.

At Watkins Glen, RHR and RLR were right on the pace all weekend. Hunter-Reay qualified third fastest, and was perfectly positioned to capitalize when Dixon made an elementary error and spun while warming his tires on the 49th lap, taking out Briscoe in the process.

Briscoe had led 37 of the first 41 laps for Team Penske, and he and Dixon pulled out a comfortable 10-second gap over the battle for third between Hunter-Reay and Kanaan.

The Australian was philosophical and bore no grudge when Dixon apologized profusely after the race.

"I feel bloody stupid," Dixon said. "I was a complete idiot and I still can't believe I did it."

"It's happened to me too, mate," Briscoe told the Target/Ganassi ace.

"It's unfortunate and I can only imagine how Scott is feeling right now," Briscoe added. "We all mess up now and again. I just wish he hadn't gotten me involved."

The Dixon/Briscoe contretemps happened right behind Manning, who had taken the lead by pitting four laps earlier than the leaders. The fact that eight of the last 21 laps were run under yellow helped Manning make his fuel last to the finish, but he was unable to hold off Hunter-Reay on a restart after one of several late-race yellows.

Once in front, Hunter-Reay's Ethanol-sponsored car shot into the distance to take an unchallenged win.

"This one didn't land in our lap," Hunter-Reay said. "I had to stuff it down the inside of Darren and we had to hold off Tony. Then we just checked out at the end, and that was the best.

"This team is a really special thing to be a part of and to finally win is huge. And it's only going to get better from here."

The win was also a vindication for Rahal, who said it was a response to criticism from Danica Patrick and Buddy Rice (who was RLR's last winner, with three victories in 2004) about the team.

"For us it has been a bit of a drought and I've heard the comments made by some of our previous drivers about the team's desire and commitment," Rahal said. "What it boils down to is having the right guy in the driver's seat. [Ryan] elevated the performance of the team immediately and he's just gotten better and better.

"He's really stepped up his performance and the team's performance and we're seeing the results."

The runner-up finish was a timely result for Manning, who was reportedly under fire from team owner A.J. Foyt after he was unable to complete the recent race at Iowa Speedway.

Somewhat surprisingly given the Foyt team's limited engineering resources, Manning has run better on road and street courses than ovals during his tenure driving for the famous Texan. Watkins Glen was his best performance yet and the alternate pit strategy gave him a genuine shot at victory

"It's nice to run competitive and run at the front of the field," Manning said. "I knew I was going to have to save fuel, but we were willing to take that risk and hold off as many people as we could. I was a bit of a sitting duck, but we chose to stay out.

"[Ryan] had a quick car and he pulled away but I was quick enough at the end to hold my own. Things get forgotten very quickly around here and you're only as good as your last race, but I'm second-best right now."

Kanaan was pleased to finish third after tweaking his right wrist in a crash in the morning warm-up. In the past two weeks, he has cut more than 30 points off of Dixon's championship lead, which stands at 48 points over Helio Castroneves, 59 points over Dan Wheldon and 66 points over Kanaan.

Ryan Hunter-Reay

This team is a really special thing to be a part of and to finally win is huge. And it's only going to get better from here.

-- Ryan Hunter-Reay

Wheldon and Castroneves failed to finish on the lead lap at Watkins Glen.

"That wrist already has 14 screws and has been operated on twice," Kanaan said. "Basically every time we turned right it was like somebody putting a needle in my wrist all race. So I was really happy for those yellows, trust me. I wasn't even warming my tires at one point, it hurt so much.

"But we turned the situation around pretty good. I could probably have put a little bit more pressure on Ryan and Darren but I don't think I could have passed. I'll take third place, it's great for the championship."

Rice took a season-best fourth place for Dreyer & Reinbold Racing, while Marco Andretti rounded out the top five.

Five of the day's six caution periods were caused by contact, but the scariest incident occurred in the pits, where Patrick hit a loose wheel and bowled over several members of Dixon's crew. There were no significant injuries.

"It looks like they had a pretty bad day -- from me being a lunatic and spinning out under yellow to almost getting run over," Dixon said.

"All in all it was an easy day for me to gain some points, but I stepped on my foot and messed up."

John Oreovicz covers open-wheel racing for National Speed Sport News and ESPN.com.