Ryan Hunter-Reay

Returning to Auto Club Speedway for a manufacturer test Sept. 24, the accomplishments of 53 weeks earlier were momentarily relived by Ryan Hunter-Reay.

The Andretti Autosport driver, who entered the MAVTV 500 INDYCAR World Championships season finale on the 2-mile oval trailing championship front-runner Will Power of Team Penske by 17 points, was spurred to a fourth-place finish that delivered his first series title by a scant three points.

“When I was walking into the (media center), I was remembering making some laps after I won it. I have some great memories of that moment. I definitely took everything in," he said. "(The test day was) not as much fun as the memories that I have of this room."

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Interviews came in rapid succession in the glare of TV lights, with Hunter-Reay hugging the Astor Cup, following the edge-of-your-seat contest, which was a microcosm of his season. Seventh in the championship standings following the June 9 race at Texas Motor Speedway, Hunter-Reay rattled off three consecutive victories to grab the points lead by 34. He was supplanted by Power at Mid-Ohio in early August, who extended the margin to 36 entering the penultimate race at Baltimore.

A victory by Hunter-Reay on the street circuit cut the gap to 17. Combined with Power's early race crash and his fourth place, an elated and humble Hunter-Reay visited the media center at Auto Club Speedway.

"I always believed that if I got the right opportunity and worked hard enough that I could be in this position or I could be in the position to win races," Hunter-Reay said. "But then you go from wining races to competing for a championship, and that comes with another level of consistency. That comes from the contiuity and a team that believes in you."

Hunter-Reay won't have the opportunity to defend his series title in the 250-lap season finale Oct. 19 at Auto Club Speedway. The No. 1 DHL car was eliminated from contention last weekend at Houston, though there's always something to shoot for -- such as his first victory since mid-June at Milwaukee.

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"I think we’re going to put on another great show here,” he said of the twilight race broadcast on NBC Sports Network.

The Fort Lauderdale, Fla., resident and 25 other drivers did that on a steamy night in the Inland Empire last year in the race that featured 29 lead changes among 12 drivers.

IZOD IndyCar Series driver/team owner Ed Carpenter won the finale for the second consecutive year, overtaking Dario Franchitti on the final lap. Target Chip Ganassi Racing teammate Scott Dixon, who's aiming for his third series title next week, finished third.

"It's always fun to come back to tracks where you've had success," Carpenter said during the Sept. 24 test. "This place is fun because it's really challenging. If you're out running by yourself, the track can make you feel like you're not very good at all. You have to pay attention to what other people are doing and when they're doing it because if you just look at yourself it's hard to tell whether you're good or bad.

"One of the things we're working on is to be able to use more of the track. What we've seen in this test as compared to last year is more people have figured out that the high line is where you need to be, and it seems to be more competitive already at this test than what it was last year. So when I see everyone else being able to run where I was last year and having success I feel I have to figure out somewhere else to be running better than everyone else.

"But that's the beauty of this racetrack; there's a lot of options. It's up to us and the teams to figure out how to make the car work where we want it to work to have the best shot at winning."

Ed Carpenter