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After frustrating 2013, don’t count out a Ryan Hunter-Reay 2014 comeback

Mar 19, 2014, 3:15 PM EST

Hunter-Reay Getty Images

One was the loneliest number for Ryan Hunter-Reay in the 2013 IndyCar Series season.

The 2012 IndyCar champion opted to swap the No. 28 for the champion’s No. 1 on board his DHL Chevrolet for Andretti Autosport. Like the old number, the good luck that was a part of his title-winning success also went begging.

Some would – and have – argued “RHR” drove a better overall season in 2013 than he did the year he won the title. His qualifying was excellent, with six Firestone Fast Six appearances on road and street courses and additional strength on the ovals. His 5.3 season average was beat only by Will Power, at 4.3.

He still won twice, with great drives at both Barber, and also at Milwaukee for the second straight year.

But man, if it could go wrong, it did for Hunter-Reay last year. Various DNFs – either accident or mechanical-related – offset the good days and left him an unrepresentative seventh in the final points tally.

Entering 2014, the 28 is back, as is Honda for the Andretti brigade. The team achieved great heights with Honda as a factory-supported effort from 2003 through 2005, and additionally in sports cars with the Acura LMP2 program from 2007 to 2008.

“(If) the advantage is Honda at any point, we need to take full advantage of that,” Hunter-Reay said during IndyCar media day in Orlando. “I’m sure that was the idea behind the move.  Not only the relationship that Andretti Autosport has with Honda, how many championships they’ve won with them.  But, yeah, it puts us in a unique situation that if something does go our way, we can hopefully and potentially take advantage of that to get closer to another championship.”

Some good testing this offseason leaves the Florida native optimistic he can restart another title charge. Hunter-Reay explained the change between the Chevrolet twin-turbo and the Honda one, new for 2014, from his perspective.

“We’ve been balancing the two of them,” he said. “We’ve been working with Honda, it’s completely different than the single turbo, the drivability side of it.  Honda has a lot of work to do just to catch up to what Chevy has been used to.”

As has been the case each of the last two years, the Andretti team chemistry dynamic endures, with Hunter-Reay, James Hinchcliffe and Marco Andretti all very good in exchanging information. Fourth driver Carlos Munoz should pick up the slack as well, having been with the team in Indy Lights the last two years and making two IndyCar cameos in 2013.

“Coming back, working with the same group of people, the communication is there,” he explained. “As I’ve always said, it’s an open book of communication between us. That’s how things work well.

“When James is finding something, it transfers to Marco and myself.  Marco and I have different driving styles, so it doesn’t always transfer.  James and I are a little bit more similar on the street circuits.”

Hunter-Reay has grown over the course of his IndyCar career to be accepted as one of the top two or three drivers in the series, and he’s one of only five drivers in the field with a past title (Scott Dixon, Tony Kanaan, Juan Pablo Montoya, Sebastien Bourdais).

But Dixon, who emerged as 2013 champion with a torrid second half of the year, is someone “RHR” both respects and has an innate desire to want to beat.

“Scott is just relentless,” Hunter-Reay admitted. “He’s a guy that goes about his business quietly, professionally, always be there threatening for a race win. I have a lot of respect for him, the way he goes about his job. He’s a guy that you always know will make your Sunday hard.”

As Hunter-Reay heads to St. Petersburg, he’s yet to win there despite a series of good runs.

He was just 22 when he made his American open-wheel debut there in 2003, the lone Champ Car race held in St. Petersburg, driving as teammate to Jimmy Vasser with Stefan Johansson’s team. He had an accident and failed to finish.

In his other St. Pete appearances: 17th and out of fuel despite leading for Bobby Rahal’s team in 2008, second in an 11th hour deal with Tony George’s Vision Racing in 2009, 11th in 2010 in his first St. Pete start for Andretti, 21st in 2011 after being caught up in a first-lap accident, third in 2012 and 18th last year after an electrical issue.

“I love that it’s the kickoff to our season,” he said. “It feels like it’s been hot or cold there for me.  Either we DNF, have an issue, don’t finish, strategize our way out of it, or we finish on the podium. Hopefully it will be the latter this time around.”

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