Ryan Hunter-Reay

Yeah, you might say Ryan Hunter-Reay enjoys short-track racing, and it hasn’t mattered what team, series or year it has been.

He won at the Milwaukee Mile as Keith Wiggins’ driver in Champ Car in 2004, then won at the same track eight years later with Andretti Autosport in the unified INDYCAR SERIES. The next year at the same track with the same team: Same result.

Hunter-Reay also won three times at Iowa Speedway – in 2012, 2014 and 2015 – and captured the 2011 race at New Hampshire International Speedway. Only once in those years did he have the fastest car in qualifying, so it’s not like he necessarily had a one-lap speed advantage.

Bottom line: He knows how to race on such tracks.

“I don’t know why, maybe it’s my driving style,” Hunter-Reay said as the NTT INDYCAR SERIES began its Hy-Vee INDYCAR Race Weekend at Iowa Speedway. “The short ovals have always suited me, and Iowa Speedway has certainly been that way.”

Statistically, only Josef Newgarden has been better at the .894-mile track where the Hy-Vee Homefront 250 presented by Instacart will be held at 3 p.m. ET Saturday and the Hy-Vee One Step 250 presented by Gatorade will be staged at 2 p.m. ET Sunday. Both 250-lap events will air live on NBC, Peacock and the INDYCAR Radio Network.

While Newgarden is the series leader with four wins at the track – one more than Hunter-Reay – RHR had the upper hand in a pair of their head-to-head fights. Hunter-Reay beat second-place Newgarden to the finish line in 2014 and 2015.

After a year away from the series and this event, Hunter-Reay is set for his best chance at victory with Ed Carpenter Racing. He had the second-fastest lap in last month’s test that saw most of the 28-car field participate. Only Andretti Autosport’s Colton Herta had a quicker lap.

A decade or so ago, Michael Andretti’s Honda-powered organization ruled this short oval, with eight wins in the first nine races, including six in succession. Not only did Hunter-Reay win three races, there were single wins by Dario Franchitti, Dan Wheldon, Tony Kanaan, Marco Andretti and James Hinchcliffe, with Marco Andretti finishing second to Franchitti in the inaugural race in 2007. More recently, Team Penske has gone to victory lane with Newgarden (three times), Helio Castroneves and Simon Pagenaud, all driving with Chevrolet.

Chevrolet-backed cars have won the past five races at the track, with Newgarden and Arrow McLaren Racing’s Pato O’Ward taking victories in last year’s doubleheader. Now Hunter-Reay has a Chevrolet, as well, and that could prove to be a combination that challenges Newgarden, who has led 62 percent of the laps at the track – 1,395 of 2,250 – since 2016.

Hunter-Reay certainly believes he has a chance to score ECR’s first oval win since Newgarden won in 2016 at Iowa Speedway, in part because the team had strong cars a year ago. Conor Daly qualified third for both races, and Rinus VeeKay, after starting eighth each day, finished fourth in Race 2.

Hunter-Reay replaced Daly in the team’s No. 20 Bitnile.com entry three races ago, and he said he and the crew are beginning to understand each other’s needs better with each lap in the car.

“It’s a lot to take on midseason, and at the same time I’ve done that with other teams, and I enjoy that side of (the sport),” Hunter-Reay said before turning his praise toward the crew. “When you can see a group of people are in ‘it’ and (wanting) to make a difference and saying, ‘Let’s get better,’ it’s always cool when everybody’s buying in on that.”

That doesn’t mean Hunter-Reay is expecting a smooth weekend – quite the contrary. In fact, he doesn’t expect any driver in this field to feel comfortable once the tires get a few laps on them.

The track has changed considerably over the years, mostly due to the impact of the Midwestern winters. The bumps in the corners are not only more pronounced; they are more abundant. Hunter-Reay said the concrete patches in Turns 3 and 4 new for the 2016 race threw the Andretti Autosport drivers “for a loop,” and it took a while for the team to get comfortable again. Plus, the recent weight distribution changes to the INDYCAR SERIES car have put more stress on the tires over the course of long runs.

“It comes to a point where nobody’s really happy with their car in the race to a certain extent, so you’re just trying to find that balance, that trade-off,” said Hunter-Reay, who has 286 starts (No. 10 all-time) and 18 victories (No. 17) in this series. “(Iowa Speedway) can be one of the most rewarding tracks or one of the most miserable experiences, depending on how your car is.”

At the June 22 test, Hunter-Reay said the No. 20 crew started with their setup from a year ago, then implemented ideas he offered. They ended up with a hybrid approach.

Still, Hunter-Reay said he, like the rest of the drivers in this weekend’s field, must adapt as the tires wear. It will be no easy task, which he appreciates and, dare we say, enjoys.

“It’s really tough out there, and you can really drive yourself out of a window there, meaning you can really beat up whatever imbalance you have in the car,” he said. “You will expose that imbalance if you try and drive too hard too early. It’s tough. But it’s a lot of fun because you really have to drive the thing. Like I said, nobody’s having fun around Lap 60 on a set of tires.”

He laughed.

“We like to joke that you just have to be ‘less bad’ than the next guy,” he said. “At some point in the race, it’s just survival.”

Hunter-Reay will get his first chance to officially challenge the field in Saturday’s two-lap qualifying session (9:30 a.m. ET, Peacock, INDYCAR Radio Network). The time of Lap 1 will set the driver’s starting position for the Saturday race while the time of Lap 2 will do the same for the Sunday race.