By Luis Torres, Staff Writer
SONOMA, California — Ryan Hunter-Reay has consistently been the best of the non-title contenders these past two days and proved it with a time of 1:17.627, earning him his sixth career Verizon IndyCar Series pole for Sunday’s IndyCar Grand Prix of Sonoma at Sonoma Raceway.
Not only it was a long-time coming for the former champion, scoring an elusive pole at the 2.385-mile road course, but its his first INDYCAR pole since Long Beach in 2014. The Floridian was congratulated with a hug and a kiss from wife Beccy.
Qualifying on pole was key for Hunter-Reay at a track he’s made the Firestone Fast Six in for the past fourth year. His eyes are set on wrapping up the season with victory No. 2 on the season, and his first triumph on a road course since 2014 at Barber Motorsports Park.
“It’s nice to finally get the pole. Big focus now is tomorrow, trying to win this thing,” Hunter-Reay said. “We’ve finished second and third here in the past, so I’d really love to get that big bottle of wine. That’s the ultimate goal for us right now, so we’ll be concentrating on that.
“Great job to the team today. Just giving me the car I need. Yesterday, we kind of dialed ourselves out a little bit and got to aggressive with the setup. Today, we narrowed right back in on it, and everything I needed in one lap, so hats off to them. It’s nice to get a pole here.”
Known to be a team player at Andretti Autosport, Hunter-Reay’s focus isn’t on conceding for teammate and championship contender Alexander Rossi – who trails points leader Scott Dixon by 29 points. The 2012 IndyCar champion instead intends to to race for himself, rallying after three retirements out of the prior six races knocked him out of the title picture.
“I’m just focusing on winning the race,” Hunter-Reay said. “That’s all I can focus on. That’s all I can do. I’ll race like I always do and go for the win. That’s my only objective and the only reason why I’m here.
“I’ve been with this team a long time. Race wins are all that matters to me. I’m going to have my head down, do everything I can to go win the race. That’s all I’m thinking about.”
In order to win, Hunter-Reay will need to survive a grueling 85-lap contest. With less downforce compared to prior years, tire wear and high wind variation, the track has been unforgiving through IndyCar’s first few days in ‘Wine Country.’ The challenge has come regardless of the time of day they’ve hit the track.
“It’s definitely strange that way,” Hunter-Reay said. “From AM to PM, it’s two different racetracks. Especially with the wind that we have now, and less downforce than we had last year, you don’t know what you’re going to get lap-to-lap. It’s really hard to push in qualifying, especially on the first lap because you don’t know where to break. You don’t know what you’re going to get away with. It’s kind of a crap shoot.
“With tire deg, it’s going to be very difficult tomorrow for anybody to make mistakes, doesn’t matter how good your car is. Haven’t looked at the wind forecast, but that’s a big one. It makes it very, very difficult. Should make it for an interesting race tomorrow, for that reason.”
Perhaps more bittersweet about Hunter-Reay winning the pole was Steve Williams handing out the coveted Verizon P1 Pole Award sticker for the final time, proudly putting it on his No. 28 DHL Honda as its the series sponsor’s final race weekend, as well as the final race at Sonoma.
Hunter-Reay thank jokingly Verizon Wireless for the phones before explaining their impact in INDYCAR over the past five seasons.
“They’ve been an absolutely amazing partner,” he said. “I told them, We’re really going to miss you for many reasons. Yeah, for the phones (laughter). No. Honestly, they’ve done so much for this series. It’s certainly a game changer. It’s tough to see them leave, but that’s how it goes. We just thank them.
“Also want to thank Sonoma. It’s been a great run here. We’re going to miss this place. Hopefully we can come back soon. It’s going to be something else next year. It’s special, for sure.
“Like I said, hats off to Verizon. Can’t thank them enough for everything they’ve done in the sport. They’ve been a great partner. Hopefully we can send this one off on a great note.”