Ryan Hunter-Reay put the American flag back atop the IndyCar podium by snatching the championship away from Will Power at the season finale in Fontana, Calif.
Power, denied for a third consecutive year, was in street clothes watching Saturday night’s finish on television after crashing out early at Auto Club Speedway. His exit from the race meant Hunter-Reay, who entered the race trailing Power by 17 points, had to finish fifth or better to claim his first championship in a major series.
He wound up fourth – becoming the first American since Sam Hornish Jr. in 2006 to win the title — but it certainly wasn’t easy.
Hunter-Reay struggled all week at California, even wrecking in Wednesday’s open test session, and was off at the start of the race. But he picked his way through the field and was on the edge of where he needed to finish as the laps wound down.
Still, a flurry of late cautions made for some hair-raising restarts and a late red flag that drew the ire of team owner Michael Andretti. Hunter-Reay managed to hang on in a race that was won by Ed Carpenter, another American.
“I raced for my life. I cannot believe we are IndyCar champions. I cannot believe this,” Hunter-Reay said. “My dream has come true.”
Power crashed 55 laps into the race, spinning hard into the outside wall when his car slipped in a seam in the track.
Ricky Stenhouse Jr. edged past Kyle Busch and into the lead, then held on for the final 20 laps for a relatively easy Nationwide Series victory in Joliet, Ill.
Perhaps more important, he left Elliott Sadler even further behind – and took over the series points lead for the first time since early June.
Stenhouse raced to his fifth Nationwide victory of the year. He has won two of the past four races — and finished second in the other two.
JOHNSON GRABS POLE
Jimmie Johnson won the pole for today’s 400-mile Sprint Cup race at Chicagoland Speedway in Joliet, Ill. — the start of the 2012 Chase for the Sprint Cup begins with Sunday’s 400-mile race.
Johnson, whose string of five straight championships was snapped last season by Tony Stewart, will start from the front after winning his second pole of the year and 27th of his career. Enumclaw’s Kasey Kahne was sixth, and Greg Biffle of Vancouver, Wash., was 22nd.
NHRA PLAYOFF BEGINS
Shawn Langdon earned the No. 1 qualifying position in Top Fuel in the O’Reilly Auto Parts NHRA Nationals in Concord, N.C., the first event in the NHRA Countdown to the Championship playoffs.
Langdon had a run of 3.807 seconds at 324.12 mph to take his second consecutive No. 1 qualifying position.
Tim Wilkerson (4.048 at 309.70) topped the Funny Car field, Vincent Nobile (6.548 at 211.03) took the Pro Stock lead, and Andrew Hines (6.851 at 195.82) led the Pro Stock Motorcycle class.
Tristan Vautier finished fourth in the Indy Lights season finale in Fontana, Calif. – won by Andretti Autosports’ Carlos Munoz – to wrap up the series championship. … Ryan Blaney became the youngest winner in NASCAR Trucks Series history, taking the race at Iowa Speedway at 18.