After battling to save fuel, Ryan Hunter-Reay finishes 2nd in GP of Indy

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It’s one of the toughest situations a race car driver can face when he or she is fighting for a win: Having to save fuel just to make it to the checkered flag.

In the closing laps of today’s inaugural Grand Prix of Indianapolis, Simon Pagenaud and Ryan Hunter-Reay both had to face that battle while third-place Helio Castroneves was charging toward them after pitting with 12 laps to go in the 82-lap race.

But just as Pagenaud’s fuel load held out and enabled him to win, Hunter-Reay’s fuel load did the same and he was able to pick up a second-place result to begin his Month of May at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

“Honda just gave us a great amount of power with the mileage that we needed to do what we did today,” the American driver said. “We were saving the same amount of fuel lap after lap and then they gave me the green light to go. I was catching him a bit and when you’re saving fuel so much, it’s tough when you go right back to 110 percent and hit all your marks, but we were catching him.”

After a crash in the waning moments of qualifying yesterday cost him the pole, Hunter-Reay started third for today’s race, which began with a bad crash off the standing start as pole sitter Sebastian Saavedra stalled and was then hit from behind.

Hunter-Reay gridded up directly behind Saavedra, but was able to get himself to the inside of Saavedra and past Jack Hawksworth to take the lead before the caution came out as Carlos Munoz and Mikhail Aleshin plowed into the Colombian.

“The start was a bit nuts,” Hunter-Reay said. “For some reason, I told myself before the race, ‘Expect something strange to happen on the front row.’ I was ready for it when it happened. I still had a good start to boot, so I was pretty happy with the way that went.

“I threaded the needle between them and I was just hoping another car wasn’t already coming into that spot.”

On the lap after the restart at Lap 8, both Hawksworth and Pagenaud got by him and Hunter-Reay hovered around the second/third place range for the remainder.

Today’s race was a strange one in Hunter-Reay’s eyes as various strategies, both in pitting and in tires, played out during the afternoon.

“The rhythm was off at times,” he said. “You didn’t know who you were racing or where the strategy was going. Guys were on three-stoppers, guys were on two-stoppers, different tire strategies.

“It was a busy day, that’s for sure.”

But ultimately, it was a rewarding one.

Hunter-Reay now sits just one point behind eighth-place finisher Will Power for the Verizon IndyCar Series championship lead as preparations for the 98th Indianapolis 500 begin tomorrow on the Indy oval.

Alex Palou fastest as several go off course during IndyCar practice at IMS

IndyCar Harvest GP practice
Jamie Squire/Getty Images
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Alex Palou paced the opening practice Thursday for the IndyCar Harvest GP at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course.

The Dale Coyne Racing rookie turned a 1-minute, 10.177-second lap around the 2.439-mile, 14-turn road course in his No. 55 Dallara-Honda.

Jack Harvey was second, followed by Colton Herta, points leader Scott Dixon and Max Chilton.

PRACTICE CHART: Click here to see the speed rundown from Thursday’s session

FRIDAY AT IMS: Details for watching Race 1 of the Harvest GP

Qualifying for Friday’s race will be at 6:20 p.m. ET Thursday on NBC Sports Gold.

Will Power, who won the pole position for the July 4 race at the track, spun off course with just more than a minute left in the session after the left rear of his No. 12 Dallara-Chevrolet made slight contact with the right front of Alexander Rossi’s No. 28 Dallara-Honda.

Power was among several drivers who went off track, but there were no damaged cars during the session. Marcus Ericsson missed the final 5 minutes of the practice after being penalized for causing a red flag with a Turn 8 spin.

Arrow McLaren SP drivers Pato O’Ward and Helio Castroneves, who is driving for Oliver Askew (who is recovering from concussion-like symptoms), also veered off course as did rookie Rinus VeeKay and Santino Ferrucci.

Seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson was in attendance at the session before racing Sunday at Talladega Superspeedway. Johnson will be driving a partial schedule of road and street courses in IndyCar next season for Chip Ganassi Racing.

“Literally, the smallest of details, I can pick up on,” Johnson told NBC Sports pit reporter Kevin Lee. “It’s been really nice today just to see how a session starts and obviously to jump on the radio and listen to how the systems work and then obviously you get into the car and the setup and such. I’m at ground zero right now, a 45-year-old rookie trying to learn my way into a new sport essentially.”

Johnson told Lee his sponsorship hunt to run a Ganassi car “has gone really well. The fact that I’m here today and ingrained so deeply in the team is a great sign of where things are going. Looking forward to getting behind the wheel of a car soon and hopefully having some announcements for the world to see soon, too.”

Fans were in attendance Thursday for the first time this season at IMS, which is allowed a limited crowd of 10,000 for its races this weekend.