Motorsports Insider: Might this be the start of another Ryan Hunter-Reay summer?

Posted Wednesday, Jun. 19, 2013  comments  Print Reprints
More information Series updates Sprint Cup On the road: The Gen-6 car gets its first road-course test, Sonoma Raceway, this weekend. Also debuting is group qualifying. Ambrose streak: Road-course specialist Marcos Ambrose has recorded top-10s in his past four starts at Sonoma. He has the series’ second-fastest green-flag speed there (89.807 mph) and third-best driver rating (106.8). Nationwide Leader’s first: Series leader Regan Smith is making his first start at Road America. He has four road-course starts in the series: two in Mexico City, two at Watkins Glen. Rolex winner: Former Rolex 24 at Daytona winner Johnny O’Connell will drive the No. 5 for JR Motorsports at Road America. Camping World Truck Back to Kentucky: James Buescher can’t be blamed for looking forward to this weekend. He won twice at Kentucky last year, spring-boarding his run to the series championship. NHRA Track debut: New England Dragway is hosting NHRA for the first time. It is NHRA’s third new track in the past six years. Drought over: John Force ended a 31-race winless streak last week, winning in Funny Car at Bristol Dragway. 7 IndyCar Series starts at Sonoma Raceway for Sprint Cup driver Danica Patrick. The results include three top-10s. They said it “This is one of the hardest road courses I have raced on. It’s very technical and is pretty fast, too. These cars are not made for this track, so you really need to wrestle them around a bit. I am not scared to do that but just need that little racing luck to get into victory lane.” — Marcos Ambrose, on Sonoma Raceway

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This is where it began last year for Ryan Hunter-Reay.

He won at Milwaukee to start a run of three straight victories in 2012, on the way to winning the IndyCar Series championship.

Last week, he won at Milwaukee, but this time he is much closer to the top of the driver standings than a year ago.

A year ago, he moved to fourth after the Milwaukee win, and he was in first place two weeks later.

This year, the Milwaukee win put him in second. He hasn’t been lower than fourth since Brazil six weeks ago.

“In sports, when you get into a momentum, a rhythm, it’s not something you can put a price tag or a finger on. It just happens,” he said. “It kind of saturates the team with this feeling that, ‘Hey, we can get it done.’ … It all started here last year.”

Team owner Michael Andretti allows himself to dream big with Hunter-Reay, a 32-year-old American in his sixth full season in IndyCar who had three seasons in CART before that.

“He’s definitely in his prime, there’s no question about it,” Andretti said. “He’s at the perfect age. He’s got all the experience he needs. He knows exactly what he needs in a race car. He knows what he needs when he’s at certain positions in the race. Those are the things you just learn through experience. Those are things that win you championships.”

Hunter-Reay has won six of the past 17 IndyCar stops. He has been second two other times. Third another time. Fourth another time. His worst results in that span happened because of engine failure, a crash and a throttle problem.

“Ryan, he needed to have races where he didn’t have mistakes,” said Andretti, whose Andretti Autosport has three drivers in the top 10 (Marco Andretti at No. 3, James Hinchcliffe at No. 9). “I’d say since the middle of 2011, from then on it just clicked for him. I think those are things that happen with experience. All of a sudden he just knew when he needed to be aggressive and when he didn’t.

“That’s where it really clicked for me with Ryan. The middle of ’11, he just started to see the bigger picture better. I think he’s scored more points than anybody since then, if you go back.”

Hunter-Reay goes into the weekend at Iowa 16 points behind leader Helio Castroneves. Pocono is next, but it wasn’t on the schedule last year. After that, it’s two races at Toronto, which gave Hunter-Reay the third win in that stretch last year.

Hunter-Reay might well be in his prime, as Andretti suggests. This could be the start of another run for a championship. Might the Dallas-born driver allow himself to dream of joining the ranks of his owner, Andretti, and open-wheel legends such as A.J. Foyt?

“I don’t know, man. I’m just fighting every week,” Hunter-Reay said. “I’m fighting every week. I love the atmosphere I’m in, the team I’m in. I love IndyCar racing. I’m pushing as hard as I can.

“Hopefully, I’m here racing for many years to come. If that’s the case, I’ll give it 110 percent. … Michael, A.J., those guys? I’m not in their league.”

Leffler funeral

Sprint Cup drivers Kasey Kahne, Brad Keselowski and Greg Biffle were among more than 800 people who attended the funeral service for NASCAR driver Jason Leffler on Wednesday.

Leffler was killed a week ago when his sprint car crashed into a wall at Bridgeport Speedway in New Jersey. No coffin was present during the hour-long service for Leffler, who won two Nationwide Series races during his NASCAR career.

Also in attendance was team owner Chip Ganassi.

Carlos Mendez, 817-390-7407 Twitter: @calexmendez

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