By: Tanner Watkins
October 19, 2018 | 11:58 AM
If it wasn’t for a little bad luck, Ryan Hunter-Reay would have been just as great a threat to Scott Dixon’s championship campaign as Alexander Rossi or Will Power were last month at Sonoma Raceway.
The 37-year-old driver had one of his best seasons to date, which, in some ways was even better than his title-winning year of 2012.
Finishing 4th in this year’s championship chase, Hunter-Reay had just as many podiums and poles in 2018 as that 2012 season. He topped the 2012 totals in races running at the finish and lead-lap finishes for this year while also notching a better average start and finish position for 2018 races.
Remarkably, Hunter-Reay made the Firestone Fast Six in each of the final eight races. The only other drivers to do that were defending series champion Josef Newgarden and this year’s runner-up in Alexander Rossi.
So while this year’s run marks Hunter-Reay’s best championship finish since that title campaign of 2012, it’s okay to have the feeling there could have been more waiting for the No. 28 DHL team at season’s end – and even the driver agrees with that.
“All things considered, 2018 was a very strong year for the DHL team,” said Hunter-Reay. “There’s no doubt with a little bit better luck, or no luck at all, we would have been right in the thick of the championship fight at Sonoma.”
The finish wasn’t from a lack of trying. As Hunter-Reay points out, the team was stellar when they did get the chance to run a mistake-free race. While they had six finishes of 16th or worse in 2018, the yellow-clad Andretti Autosport team had an average finish of 3.36 in the other 11 events.
“After recently going through a summary of our 2018 performances, I was a bit shocked to learn that on all races where we encountered no issues, our worst finish was fifth,” remarked the Florida native. “That really speaks volumes to the hard work this team has put in over the past season.”
Running as high as 2nd the championship following his runner-up finish at Road America in June, Hunter-Reay’s championship hopes began to erode over the next five races.
A suspension issue at Iowa relegated him to 19th after qualifying third while a multi-car pile-up at Toronto pulled Hunter-Reay to 16th after running safely inside the top five.
After finishing seventh at Mid-Ohio the No. 28 saw just six laps before being involved in the dangerous multi-car crash at Pocono Raceway in August (finishing 18th) while fuel pressure issues sidelined Hunter-Reay after 172 laps at Gateway (finishing 20th).
A strong finish to the season did elevate Hunter-Reay from 5th to 4th in the final championship classifications, leading 99 laps between a runner-up result at Portland and a win in the season finale at Sonoma. The dominant finish gives Hunter-Reay reason to be content with 2018 while igniting a spark for 2019.
“Most importantly, we ended 2018 on a very strong note with a massive amount of momentum rolling into 2019,” Hunter-Reay said after the dust had settled at Sonoma. “Finishing second at Portland and earning pole, most laps led and a huge win at Sonoma has everyone energized to come out even stronger at St. Pete in March.”
So now we embark on the long and dreary offseason that INDYCAR fans must endure each winter. Hunter-Reay has the honor of being the series’ most recent race winner and it is clear that he was one of the circuit’s best in 2018.
The veteran driver continues to age like fine Sonoma wine and this universal aero kit plays right into Hunter-Reay’s driving style. He knows what must be done in order to take that final step to the top step in 2019.
“There were plenty of missed opportunities this year and we’re all well aware of that, and each particular circumstance that put us there,” Hunter-Reay acknowledged. “The fact is, we have to minimize those DNFs and down days. If we do that, we’ll be a championship contender in 2019 at Laguna Seca.”
The goal is clear. If RHR and his DHL crew can make good on their 2018 shortcomings then the rest of the paddock will be wishing for a little luck next season – though I don’t think Hunter-Reay will be showing much sympathy.
Header image by James Black/INDYCAR.