(Eds: With AP Photos.)By JENNA FRYERAP Auto Racing Writer
There were moments not too long ago when both Will Power and Ryan Hunter-Reay thought their careers might be over.
Power was deeply in debt eight years ago, certain he was headed home to Australia to join the family business because he couldn’t afford to continue chasing his racing dreams. Hunter-Reay couldn’t find steady work for almost two full seasons and figured there was nothing left for a young American driver.
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They stuck with it, and find themselves locked in a tight race for the IndyCar Series championship.
Hunter-Reay goes into Sunday’s race at Edmonton with a 34-point lead over Power in the standings. It’s the first time at this level that he has led the series standings, and Hunter-Reay got there with three consecutive wins.
At 31, Hunter-Reay is proof that the journeyman driver can still be successful.
”I really feel like I’m living the American dream right now, especially because it’s been such a tough go for me at times throughout my career,” Hunter-Reay said. ”I didn’t have the means, I didn’t have the last name and I’ve gotten here today based on merits and work and with results and persistence.”
Stuck in the middle of America’s open-wheel racing split, Hunter-Reay spent his first three seasons in Champ Car with three different teams. But there was nothing for him in 2006, and he came close many times to walking away from racing.
”I got within a couple of months of not knowing what to do anymore,” he said. ”There was nothing left, there was nothing out there. The well was drying up and I was literally sitting there every day looking at a list of phone numbers, dialing numbers every day, and getting nowhere.
”At some point you have to look yourself in the mirror and say, `You are going to have to do something else if you are going to make a living.”’
The breakthrough came midway through the 2007 season when Bobby Rahal called and offered him a ride for the final six races of the IndyCar season. It was the entry he needed, and Hunter-Reay carved a spot for himself in the series that made him a viable option for Andretti Autosport in 2010.
Now in his third season with the same team – the longest stretch of job security Hunter-Reay has had in years – he has put together an impressive streak. He is the first American since Sam Hornish Jr. in 2006 to lead the points standings, and he’s just the 23rd driver in U.S. open-wheel history to win three consecutive races.
Power is part of that group, too.
The perennial title contender started the year with consecutive wins at Barber, Long Beach and Brazil, and led in points through seven races. Crashes at Indianapolis and Iowa have contributed to his slip, but Power has admittedly not been on the same pace of late as Hunter-Reay.
Now, something has to give: Of the 21 other drivers to win three races in a row in a season, only Paul Tracy in 1997, and A.J. Allmendinger and Scott Dixon in 2007, failed to win the championship in that year.
”I feel I’m a contender, I really do,” Power said. ”I feel like if we get everything right in the next five races we have a legitimate chance of winning the championship. We’re one of the quickest out there, and when things go right on a weekend, we’re always on the podium or we win the race.”
History would suggest Power is the favorite this weekend at Edmonton, where he won last year on the redesigned 2.2-mile, 13-turn temporary street course. He started on the pole in 2010 and finished second, and he won in 2009.
He’s the most dominant road course racer in the series right now, but isn’t taking anything for granted, especially since Hunter-Reay’s wins have come on two different ovals and a street circuit at Toronto.
”There’s no one dominant. There’s no one getting all the poles. There’s no one really winning all the road course races. It’s really mixed up,” said Power, adding that Hunter-Reay has ”always been strong. This year he’s just been more consistent. He’s executing week in, week out. In my opinion he’s the strongest guy in IndyCar racing right now because he’s strong in both disciplines, oval and road.”
But it’s not a two-driver race. Power’s Penske Racing teammate Helio Castroneves is third in the standings, and Target Chip Ganassi Racing driver Scott Dixon is fourth.
”It’s been our No. 1 goal to beat Penske and Ganassi because they have been the dominant forces,” Hunter-Reay said. ”But we know now we can beat them on any weekend, it can be done. It’s going to be hard because four of the remaining five races are road courses and street races, and Will is going to be a threat to win at every one of them. Dixon will be tough to beat anywhere, anytime, and I think Helio is going to be tough, too. He can put together a run here at the end of the season.”
Power said Hunter-Reay’s streak has given him the kick in the pants he needed.
”I’m really back to being focused and ready and positive, and it’s kind of good to feel this way at this time of the season,” Power said. ”Feeling good, feeling fit and ready to go.”