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Hunter-Reay wins third straight race at Honda Indy Toronto

The Canadian Press

7/9/2012 12:50:07 AM

TORONTO -- This is Ryan Hunter-Reay's dream, the place he has raced toward since he was young. Three wins in a row, a lead in the points race and a chance to be IndyCar champion.

Hunter-Reay's victory Sunday at the Honda Indy Toronto gives him that opportunity. The 31-year-old American is having a breakout season and can leave his mark on a series where he has never finished higher than seventh.

Despite his recent success, he's trying to enjoy the moment and not look too far ahead.

"You gotta drive like it's your last race and I still do it that way," said Hunter-Reay.

The win breaks up a dominant run by Dario Franchitti and Will Power at the 85-lap race. Franchitti, the defending champion who also won in 1999 and 2009, entered with the pole and hopes of winning at Exhibition Place for the fourth time in his career. Power, who won in 2007 and 2010, was seeking retribution after being spun out of contention last year by Franchitti.

In the end, neither were a factor. Franchitti suffered from a bad pit stop then finished in a collision with Ryan Briscoe that ended the race under a yellow caution flag. Power, who entered the race as the points overall leader, took the lead on Lap 6 but was knocked back in the field after his front wing broke off and slashed two of his tires.

He finished 15th, and is now 34 points back of Hunter-Reay in the standings.

Hunter-Reay, meanwhile, took the lead on Lap 49, lost it briefly on a pit stop, and regained it for good on Lap 57. He finished ahead of Charlie Kimball, who's second-place finish was a career best, and Mike Conway.

"To be able to be competing in the IndyCar series in a top-level team. Winning back-to-back races and challenging for the championship. Just to be in this position, to be given the opportunity is incredibly special to me, and I'm appreciative of every lap I get in this series because I love it," said Hunter-Reay.

Kimball, who started 13th and raced aggressively on the 11-turn, 2.824-kilometre street course, said he felt conflicted about the result despite the personal achievement. The 27-year-old, predominately known for driving with diabetes, was angry at himself for not seizing the opportunity to walk away as Sunday's winner.

"Somebody asked a team owner what his best race win was, and he said the next one," said Kimball. "So today is important, yes, and it's good for confidence, it's good for the team's confidence ... but it's all about moving forward and learning from here rather than relying on this to continue to keep my career moving. Second's good. A win's better."

The track also proved problematic yet again for Canadian drivers.

Engine issues plagued James Hinchcliffe all weekend and eventually knocked him out of the race on Lap 28.

The fan favourite from Oakville, Ont., pulled over with concerns about his engine and never returned to the track, ending a disappointing appearance on home soil. Hinchcliffe started 19th after incurring a 10-grid spot penalty for changing an engine during Friday's practice.

"It started as a little hesitation that was progressively getting worse, and that usually means it's going to blow up soon," said Hinchcliffe, who finished 22nd. "Rather than risk that and maybe having a 10-place penalty in Edmonton, hopefully we can take this one back, get it fixed and just hit the ground running in two weeks."

Alex Tagliani of Lachenaie, Que., who was never a threat to win, started 16th with the same penalty and finished 10th.

The race, which is known for being full of crashes, went without incident until the end.

Rookie Josef Newgarden went into a wall on the 79th lap, prompting a yellow flag. On the restart, Conway made his play for third behind Kimball while three cars collided in one pile up and Briscoe was pushed into the front of Franchitti's car in another.

Franchitti, whose only win in 2012 was at the Indianapolis 500, has endured a season of seemingly endless mechanical problems and was left just short of the finish line. Hunter-Reay meanwhile benefited for the third time in a row from Franchitti starting on the pole.

"I hope Dario gets a lot of poles this year," he quipped.

Tony Kanaan had a remarkable race after starting well back in 17th. The Brazilian veteran was assessed a drive-through penalty on Lap 23 for hitting a tire on his way out of the pit. Yet Kanaan stayed competitive, challenging Hunter-Reay for the lead late and settling for a fourth-place finish.

Graham Rahal's day was over on Lap 23 after he locked his tires and crumpled the left side of the front of his car into a corner. That led to a yellow where Simon Pagenaud took over first place when Power and the other leaders pitted. Pagenaud pulled in for a pit stop and from there the race belonged to Hunter-Reay.

The victory was the first for Michael Andretti as a team owner. Andretti ruled Toronto during his driving career with seven titles, and said he hoped to see six more wins as the boss.

He advised Hunter-Reay to keep his routine the same. If he did, the wins would follow.

"I don't think Ryan should do anything different. I don't think the team should do anything different," said Andretti. "We should just continue to do our job. If everybody does their job, we should be OK. If there's no mistakes made the rest of the year, I think we have a good shot at winning the championship."

It will be a tough task for Hunter-Reay with five races left. His previous two wins came on ovals, giving him confidence that he is versatile enough to keep ahead of Power, Helio Castroneves and Scott Dixon, who are all separated by just 54 points.

"It's nice to realize that we're in this position and that this is what I've always wanted, but now we have to take hold of it and go get it done," said Hunter-Reay. "To beat Will, Dario, Dixon, a lot of these guys, it's just going to be really tough week in and week out to do it. It's going to take something special from us, that's for sure.

"Maybe something more special than we've already done."

Notes: The next stop is the Edmonton Indy on July 22. ... James Jakes was penalized 10 spots on the starting grid early Sunday for an unapproved engine change. He started 24th and joined Tagliani, Hinchcliffe and Simona De Silvestro in incurring the penalty.