Ryan Hunter-Reay

AVONDALE, Arizona – Ryan Hunter-Reay shouldn’t need to remind anyone that he still drives one of the fastest cars in the Verizon IndyCar Series.

The Andretti Autosport driver’s No. 28 DHL Honda ranked 10th out of the 23 cars participating in the Phoenix open test at ISM Raceway on Friday and Saturday.

But if it seems like the 2012 series champion and 2014 Indianapolis 500 winner has been missing from serious championship contention and victory lane in the past two years, it’s because that’s the harsh reality. His last victory came at Pocono in 2015. His best points finish since the 2012 title was sixth twice, and he was ninth last year.

He’s still typically in the hunt, then something bad always seems to happen. And it typically isn’t his fault. He can argue that Murphy’s Law – if anything can go wrong, it will – should be renamed Hunter-Reay’s Law, considering his penchant for encountering misfortune.

Perhaps what’s most impressive is the 37-year-old driver known for an incredibly intense competitive streak hasn’t gone ballistic by venting with some memorable meltdowns. Hunter-Reay acknowledges his patience has been tested, but his mind is clear and he’s reset for the 2018 season with an upbeat, positive perspective.

How can this be? Look at last year’s race at Pocono. He hit the wall hard in practice, then led the race the next day, but was denied a shot at victory because of an electrical issue. And he had that same issue before at Long Beach.

At some point, a driver must accept nothing can be done about things beyond one’s control.

“With experience and years in the sport comes that lesson,” Hunter-Reay said. “You can only really stress out and concentrate on the things that you can control. Everything else, you’ve got to let it go. If you can’t do anything about it immediately, in the long term or the short term, you just have to let it be in the background.”

He returns with the same passion and desire as before, as if these demoralizing setbacks had no lasting effect. That’s saying something, considering this is a guy who in 2016 led a race-high 52 laps in the 100th Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil, but got bumped out of contention when collected by teammate Townsend Bell in a pit-road incident. 

“What am I supposed to do at that point?” he said. “I can’t throw the team under the bus about it. It was just a series of circumstances that led to that Murphy’s Law moment.”

Last year, he was racing for the Indy 500 lead with teammate Fernando Alonso on Lap 135, then one lap later, Hunter-Reay’s Honda engine started smoking. He had led 28 laps, but the lasting image of him was seeing his hands thrown into the air in disappointment.

“We were running really hard, then boom,” he said.

How can he accentuate the positive in that?

“I’d rather run really well in a good car in a strong effort, running up at the front and have circumstances out of my control take me out of the running,” he said, “than running my absolute hardest and coming up way short.”

Forget about it. Move on. Set your mind to winning the Indy 500 this year, and then the championship. It’s as simple as that.

“When it’s that important to you, that’s kind of the reaction you get,” Hunter-Reay said. “It’s been your whole life. It’s been everything that you’ve ever wanted. Last year, I hit the wall at Pocono, a 138-G (impact), and I got in the car and led the race the next day.

“It’s just something that you do. You get on with it. That’s what is important to you. If it’s not important to you, it becomes obvious pretty quickly in the sport. The guys that have continued to win races every year, it’s embedded in them. It’s important to them enough that their life revolves around it.”

Hunter-Reay has 16 victories in an Indy car career that began in 2003. Last season, he finished in the top 10 in eight of the 17 starts with three thirds and one fourth. In 2016, when he was 12th in the points, he was a top-10 finisher in eight of 16 races with three thirds and two fourths.

“Looking forward to new challenges and the new car,” he said of the redesign and universal aero kit. “The last time we did the new car shift, it was good for our team.”

That was in 2012, when the Dallara IR-12 chassis debuted and he won the championship.

“It will be whatever driver and team that can most efficiently come up with a setup to compensate for what this car is lacking, when you talk about grip, to suit that driver’s driving style,” he said. “There’s so much talent in this series. You’re not going to purely have that guy who can just go out and do the fastest lap. It’s going to be the big picture, how they can work with their team, how they can get the engineering side of the team to come together to give the driver what he needs to succeed.”

His goals, as always, are quite clear.

“There’s that next club, for sure, two-time (Indy 500) winners, two-time (series) champions,” he said. “That’s the only reason we’re in the sport, to win these things, win the championship, win the Indy 500. That’s what we do. That’s what we’re here for, to not only compete but to win.”

Hunter-Reay and the rest of the Verizon IndyCar Series drivers open the 2018 season with the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg from March 9-11. For ticket information, visit gpstpete.com. The race airs live at 12:30 p.m. ET March 11 on ABC and the Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network.