Hunter-Reay leans on lessons learned to persevere

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LEXINGTON, Ohio — Not that long ago, the patience of intensely competitive Ryan Hunter-Reay was tested to the extreme in a Verizon IndyCar Series season going nowhere fast. Or, maybe more accurately, not so fast.

After the ultimate accomplishment of winning the 2014 Indianapolis 500, he struggled the next year as Andretti Autosport adjusted to aero kit competition that was new to the series. Just like that, the 2012 series champion was showing up for races knowing he didn’t stand a chance.

As maddening as that experience became, the team eventually sorted out the setup issues and Hunter-Reay surged to the front. He rebounded with wins at Iowa and Pocono as well as a second in the 2015 season finale at Sonoma to finish sixth in the points.

Hunter-Reay’s patience is being tested again these days — he didn’t win a race last year and is 13th in the points this season, one spot worse than where he finished a year ago.

But after posting today’s fastest practice lap in his No. 28 DHL Honda for Sunday’s Honda Indy 200 at Mid-Ohio, Hunter-Reay reiterated how lessons learned in 2015 continue to serve him well.

“That was the first time in my career I felt like I was in a really good car but we were upside down, you know what I mean?” he said. “Setup is everything. Changing over with the aero kit. … Three-quarters of the season was absolutely terrible, just trying to keep my head in line. Then we went out and won two races before the end of the season.

“That year taught me a lot. Just trying to stay with it. I know when we have the right package, I'll be there, I'll be ready for it. I'll be right at the front.”

If any race is a microcosm of the past two years, it’s been the Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil. Each time, he’s had a car capable of winning. In May, he led 28 laps but his engine failed after 136 laps. The year before that, he led 52 laps before being collected in a pit-road incident with Townsend Bell and Helio Castroneves.

“What are you going to do about Indy?” Hunter-Reay said. “I knew I had a great car to compete for the win, but two years in a row where it was taken out of our control. What are you going to do? It's racing. You keep on.

“I feel like one of the luckiest people in the world that I get to do this for a living, so I'm not going to get down in the dumps about everything. Every weekend I come out and do this again, I feel like a kid. I feel like I get to do the best thing in the world. It's a dream job.”

After finishing third at Iowa and sixth at Toronto in the previous two starts before this weekend, perhaps Hunter-Reay is starting to turn things around again. Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course is typically a challenge, however. His career-best finish in 10 starts is third in 2003 and 2011 — the former being Hunter-Reay’s first podium finish in Indy cars.

“Yeah, that first podium was a bit too long ago,” the 36-year-old driver said of being third. “I guess it ages me.”

The confidence from 14 victories in 11 series seasons has Hunter-Reay still upbeat about making the most of the season’s final five races.  In each of the last two years, Andretti Autosport has celebrated an Indy 500 triumph, but the team hasn’t had a driver finish in the top five in points — Takuma Sato is currently sixth and Alexander Rossi seventh.

How important would a Mid-Ohio win be for not just Hunter-Reay but the team?

“It would mean a lot,” he said. “Obviously, for sure, with all of the frustration from the season, it would be real nice to have that kind of momentum, season changer.

“We definitely want to get back there. That’s the only reason we’re in business. It goes without saying.”

Hunter-Reay has been racing at Mid-Ohio’s 2.258-mile permanent road course since he was a kid and considers the 13-turn layout one of his favorite tracks. He is well aware that, while today was encouraging with a fast lap of 1 minute, 4.2961 seconds (126.428 mph), the car must be quicker on Saturday for qualifying because speeds typically increase through the weekend.

“What we did today is not going to be good enough for tomorrow,” he said. “Like a brand-new, clean sheet of paper tomorrow, everybody starts all over again. The series is so tight that if you don't continue to move forward on setup, on your driving, you're going to fall behind tomorrow.”

Verizon IndyCar Series action at Mid-Ohio continues with practice at 9:55 a.m. ET Saturday (live stream on RaceControl.IndyCar.com). Knockout qualifying to determine the Verizon P1 Award pole winner airs live at 2 p.m. on NBCSN.

Coverage of Sunday’s race begins live at 3 p.m. on CNBC and the Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network, with a race re-air at 7 p.m. on NBCSN.

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