NEWTON, Iowa — Andretti Autosport has long been the team to beat at Iowa Speedway.
On Sunday, James Hinchcliffe put an exclamation point on Andretti’s dominance there with the best race of his career.
Hinchcliffe, from Oakville, Ont., cruised to victory in the IndyCar Series race, leading all but 24 of 250 laps. He became the first three-time winner this season and gave Andretti Autosport its fourth consecutive victory at Iowa’s .875-mile oval, the shortest track on the circuit.
Ryan Hunter-Reay, Hinchcliffe’s teammate, battled back from last place to finish second. He was followed by Tony Kanaan, Ed Carpenter and Graham Rahal.
Hinchcliffe took the lead on the opening lap and ceded control only briefly during pit stops. He joined Kanaan, Marco Andretti and Hunter-Reay as Iowa winners for Andretti Autosport since 2010.
But none of those runs was as dominant as the one Hinchcliffe put together this time around.
“I’ve watched guys win races like this on TV, and my whole career I thought ‘I just don’t get it. How do they do that?’ I’ve never been in that position. And now I know. You have to have a hell of a good car. You have to have a hell of a good crew and just hit your marks all afternoon long,” Hinchcliffe said. “Man, it feels good to do it like that.”
Now the next step for Hinchcliffe is consistency.
Despite earning his first three career wins this season, Hinchcliffe is 66 points behind series leader Helio Castroneves because of five finishes of 15th or lower.
“He’s been either feast or famine. He either wins or he has problems. But he knows he’s capable of winning,” team owner Michael Andretti. “If he can hopefully get through all his problems and continue to do what he’s doing, he has a good shot at a championship.”
Series leader Helio Castroneves was eighth. His lead over Hunter-Reay was cut to nine points — the exact number Castroneves earned Saturday by winning the pole through heat qualifying races.
“We drove as hard as we could. When they told me I came in eighth, I was like ‘What?’ I certainly felt we had a better car than that,” Castroneves said.
It was clear from the opening lap that nobody had a better car than the No. 27 of Hinchcliffe. He immediately grabbed control of the race from Will Power, who counts just one oval among his 18 series victories. Power fell behind by as much as a lap midway through the race and finished 17th.
Hinchcliffe also held off a furious challenge from Rahal off a restart about 90 laps from the finish. Though Rahal technically took the lead for a lap, Hinchcliffe hung on to the low groove, running side-by-side with Rahal, before bursting clear.
Hinchcliffe had only led 99 laps in his three-year IndyCar career before Sunday. He surpassed that total less than halfway through the race.
“We got (Power) on lap one there and really never looked back. The car was solid,” Hinchcliffe said. “When we needed it, the car was awesome. We were fast up front by ourselves. We were good in traffic.”
Hunter-Reay fell behind Castroneves by 25 points on Saturday after a poor showing during the qualifying heats. It only got worse for Hunter-Reay roughly 40 laps in when he rear-ended Rahal, forcing his team to change out his front wing. But he scrambled from the back for an impressive podium finish.
“It was a really good day for points, to finish second after being dead last, and just (Saturday) we had the nightmare of a day,” Hunter-Reay said. “It’s a bummer when you have that good of a car to finish second. But considering we came from the back of the pack to finish second in such a tight field, I have to be happy about that. Somewhat pleased, I should say.”
The series next runs at Pocono Raceway, but not before a much-needed break. IndyCar will take next weekend off, its first true break since late April, before returning to Pocono on July 7, ending a 23-year hiatus from that track.
Though it’s been decades since the series has run there, it’ll be hard to bet against Andretti. The team has now won five of 10 races in 2013. It also boasts three serious championship contenders in Hunter-Reay, Marco Andretti and Hinchcliffe, all of whom are right behind Castroneves.
“Guys like Helio, with his experience and everything, is going to be really difficult. He’s going to make it go right down to the wire, I can assure you. But it’s always nice to have more than one bullet in the gun. And right now, we have three real legitimate shots at winning a championship,” Michael Andretti said.