By JENNA FRYER, Associated Press
BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (AP) — Andretti Autosport remained perfect on the year Sunday when defending IndyCar Series champion Ryan Hunter-Reay snapped Penske Racing's winning streak at Barber Motorsports Park.
The win came at one of Hunter-Reay's worst tracks, which just so happened to be where his Penske rivals dominated. Headed into the weekend, Helio Castroneves and Will Power had won every pole and all three races since IndyCar's 2010 debut on the picturesque permanent road course.
But Hunter-Reay proved to be a credible threat for the victory when he beat both Power and Castroneves for the pole, raced both hard for the lead during a middle portion of the race, then held off Scott Dixon to give Andretti and Chevrolet wins in the season's first two races.
"Several times in the offseason, I said our biggest weaknesses were the permanent road courses like Barber and Sonoma, and the big super speedways like Texas and Fontana," Hunter-Reay said. "The guys gave me a great car. I had more pressure than anything bringing a car home that I knew was capable of winning. That was the biggest pressure."
In delivering at a track where his previous best finish was 12th, Hunter-Reay showed last year's championship was no fluke. And he proved he can bounce back after a disappointing race: Mechanical problems in the season-opener at St. Pete caused him to finish 18th in a race teammate James Hinchcliffe won.
It was Hunter-Reay's 10th career victory, and he put the No. 1 car into Victory Lane at an IndyCar race for the first time since Sebastien Bourdais won at Mexico City in 2007. He also moved up 15 spots in the standings to third.
"It really shows that we're a threat every weekend — that's what we need to be to win championships, is be a threat every weekend," Hunter-Reay said.
Hunter-Reay had to hold off Scott Dixon at the end, and Dixon settled for second for the fourth consecutive year at Barber.
"I'm going to go buy a bridesmaid's dress tonight and party pretty hard," joked Dixon, who had to charge through the field at St. Pete to finish fifth. "It's still good points. It's good at the minute, but you know, it would really be nice to win at this place sometime."
Castroneves was third and thrilled to take over the IndyCar points lead.
"You have to enjoy the moment, but work for it," he said. "Those points are very valuable if you are thinking about the long-term. Last year the championship was lost by, what, (four) points? So you got to take as it comes. We've got to keep putting ourselves in those opportunities and the win is going to come. With that, I'm going to add more points."
Charlie Kimball, Dixon's teammate at Chip Ganassi Racing, was a career-best fourth as Honda split the top four with Chevrolet one race after Chevy swept the podium.
"I think Chip said it best when he said it's my third season, it's time to start winning," said Kimball, who with three laps led Sunday is the only Ganassi driver to lead laps this season.
"Our expectation is to be consistently in the top five, qualify consistently in the top 10, and come away from the season with a podium and a race win or two."
Power, the two-time defending race winner, wound up a surprising fifth after failing to contend all weekend. His Penske team tried initially to complete the race on an alternate two-stop strategy, but never got the yellow flag needed to make it work.
"We couldn't get in the right slot and then committed to a different strategy," Power said. "We thought we had a good plan and just needed a yellow at any point after Lap 31. Unfortunately, it didn't come and we fought for the fifth-place finish. It isn't exactly what we wanted to get out of the weekend, but it is still a good points day and gets us closer to the top."
AJ Allmendinger ran seventh for most of his IndyCar debut but finished 19th after stalling his car during his final pit stop. But he was praised repeatedly by team owner Roger Penske, even after the mistake in the pits.
"Finish this and just learn, learn, learn. You are doing fine," Penske radioed Allmendinger.
Despite a showing that was praised by Penske and Castroneves, Allmendinger was frustrated with his finish in his first open-wheel race since 2006.