Will Power's commanding, early-season lead in the IZOD IndyCar Series has melted away thanks to a white-hot run by Ryan Hunter-Reay, whose victories in the last three races have boosted him to a 34-point lead over Power with five races to go.
Starting Sunday at Edmonton, four races are on road or street courses and they would appear to favor Power. The Penske Racing driver has 18 career victories, three in Champ Car and 15 in IndyCar, and 17 are on those twisty courses he grew up racing on in Australia and Europe.
Power put together a three-race streak, all on road/street circuits, in the opening four races to take a 45-point lead over teammate Helio Castroneves heading into Indianapolis. Hunter-Reay was fourth, 59 points back.
Hunter-Reay has been the surprise of the season, the first American to lead the series since Sam Hornish Jr.'s 2006 championship campaign. You can't classify him as better on ovals or road/street courses. He's won on both in his streak, on the ovals at Milwaukee and Iowa and the street course in Toronto. Hunter-Reay had showed the ability to win on diverse tracks before, on the streets of Surfers Paradise, Australia, and Milwaukee in Champ Car and on the permanent road course at Watkins Glen, the streets of Long Beach and the 1-mile oval at New Hampshire.
What Hunter-Reay hadn't done was finish consistently close enough to the top to contend for a championship. He was seventh in the points the past two seasons, the highest he's been.
Power, second in the championship the past two seasons to Dario Franchitti, may have the edge with the schedule, but he also knows Hunter-Reay has made a big jump in performance this season and that the 34-point deficit will be difficult to overtake.
"He's been with the [Andretti Autosport] team, so he's had a bit of continuity the last three years," Power said. "And, really, he's always been strong. This year, he's definitely been more consistent. He was always, every weekend or every track you went to, you could always count on him to win. The only difference now is he's putting it all together and he's executing week in, week out. In my opinion, he's the strongest guy in IndyCar racing right now. He's strong in both disciplines, oval and road."
Hunter-Reay showed his road/street course acumen early in the year with a second at Brazil, third at St. Petersburg and sixth at Long Beach. He's an American who was reared on those kinds of courses and, like those who come from Europe, adapted to ovals.
"I really like the mix," Hunter-Reay said. "That's what IndyCar has always been for me, even when I was a fan of the series before I started racing. When I started racing go-karts, everything was road courses. My first oval was in the Barber Dodge series. That was a completely new experience and I loved it from the first lap. It was so cool."
Hunter-Reay concurs with Power that finding a home at Andretti has been a major factor in his emergence as a championship contender.
"It's been the best run of my career, but it's not something that happened by accident," he said. "I'm just like a lot of people who reach their own American dream through hard work. It took a lot of persistence and perseverance to get to this point. Credit has to go to [team owner] Michael Andretti,who hired me three years ago and told me he was going to bring this team back to its championship form.
"Having been here since 2010, it really feels like family. It's the kind of thing that can happen only over time and I'm feeling that kind of connection for the first time in my career. The lows that I've been through in my career, like being relegated to driving a show car in 2005 [in Champ Car] and then not being able to find a ride at all for the 2006 season, make the highs much better. Those disappointments have only made me stronger and hungrier now that I've found a home."
Hunter-Reay says IndyCar's first-year car, the Dallara DW12, has also played a major role in the Andretti team catching up with the Penske and Chip Ganassi Racing teams that had dominated IndyCar in the previous four seasons.
"I think the new car has leveled the playing field a little bit and that allowed Andretti Autosport to get back where it belongs up in the front," he said.
Power offers a slightly different perspective of why Hunter-Reay has been able to find more speed.
"They're just a stronger team than they have been, with a stronger driver lineup," Power said. "That's why they're doing so well. You can't change much on this bloody car, it comes down to what you learn from teammates."
James Hinchcliffe, who replaced Danica Patrick at Andretti, is fifth in the points. Teammate Marco Andretti, in his seventh season with the team, is 15th.
Castroneves is third in the championship, 46 points behind Hunter-Reay, and Ganassi's Scott Dixon is fourth, 54 behind. Franchitti's hopes for a fifth consecutive title (removing 2008, the season he raced in NASCAR) are out of reach. He's 105 points back.
Realistically, unless they suddenly slow down or run into very bad luck, Hunter-Reay and Power are alone in this championship battle.
"I would like to be the points leader," Power admits. "To win the championship, things have to go your way, every weekend you have to be knocking on the door. If we get everything right the next five races, we have a legitimate chance of winning [the championship] and I think we will if we get it right. We're one of the quickest out there."
Hunter-Reay is enjoying the ride. He wants to keep it going.
"It's just nice to see that this team is reaching its potential because the potential has been there," he said. "It's a great group and we have even better performances in us in the future. It's been a lot of fun, but we're not getting ahead of ourselves. It's lap by lap and just concentrate on being solid."