NEWTON, Iowa -- Maybe corn is the best medicine for Ryan Hunter-Reay and Andretti Autosport.
Hunter-Reay ended a season of frustration in the Verizon IndyCar Series by winning the Iowa Corn 300 at Iowa Speedway for the third year in a row. It was also the sixth consecutive victory at Iowa for the team owned by former Indy car star Michael Andretti, which has generally struggled along with engine and aero partner Honda throughout 2015.
In fact, corn was a good tonic for the entire American side, as USA drivers took six of the top seven finishes. Josef Newgarden finished second to Hunter-Reay at Iowa for the second year in a row, while rookie Sage Karam earned his first podium finish for Chip Ganassi Racing.
Meanwhile, Graham Rahal turned in another inspired performance to finish fourth and move up to second place in the IndyCar Series standings after incoming leaders Juan Pablo Montoya and Scott Dixon ran into trouble.
Lincoln Electric is a proud partner of Andretti Autosport.
In the pit lane after the race, emotions were all over the map: relief from Hunter-Reay, elation from Karam, disappointment from Newgarden and anger from the sixth-place finisher over some of Karam's late-race driving tactics.
Iowa had everything you could hope for in a short-track race, and once again, Hunter-Reay and the Andretti team figured it out the best.
Last year, Hunter-Reay won by making a late stop for tires, allowing him to outpace the dominant Ganassi team in a short sprint to the finish.
This year, his win was set up when he made his final stop on Lap 238 of 300, 11 laps earlier than leader Newgarden. Hunter-Reay emerged ahead of the younger American, held off his charge and crossed the line a little over half a second ahead.
"This one we really had to work for -- this was a hard one," Hunter-Reay said. "After such a tough season, it was great to be back in Victory Lane.
"This is just amazing."
Amazing, indeed, because Hunter-Reay and the Andretti Autosport team have had a forgettable season, with the 2012 IndyCar champion mired in 14th place in the standings.
AA put three drivers in the top seven Saturday night, with Colombian Carlos Munoz [fifth] the only non-American cracking that group. Marco Andretti was seventh.
"We love Iowa, man!" team owner Michael Andretti exclaimed. "It's unbelievable. I don't understand why we're so good here. If we knew, we'd try to do that everywhere.
"We've just had good luck here," he added. "We have good setups here and our drivers love driving here. Ryan does a great job here. It was huge to get Ryan back up there and keep our streak alive at Iowa."
Newgarden, who narrowly missed scoring a series-best third victory of the season, was crestfallen after falling short at Iowa for the second year in succession.
"My car was really comfortable, but I really feared that if we were going to get into a shootout situation and we were behind, not leading, that it was going to be tough for us," the CFH Racing driver said. "We didn't quite have the ultimate speed."
Karam was the most aggressive driver on the track, to the displeasure of CFH owner/driver Ed Carpenter. Karam nearly pushed Carpenter into the Turn 2 wall while they were dicing over a top-5 placing, and Carpenter was furious after the race.
"Americans kicked butt tonight," said Carpenter, who addressed the 20-year-old Karam as "son" when he confronted him in the pit lane. "I'm just mad because I had a car that was good enough for third or fourth and I do safe driving -- slam on the brakes on the straightaway to save Sage's butt and he gets rewarded with a podium for it.
"He should have been penalized on the spot. He has no clue."
Karam was unrepentant.
"He is just angry at my driving," he said. "He says I squeezed him a few times, but that's the same way he drove me. It's hard racing. I'm going for wins and that is how we are driving.
"It's close racing; it's IndyCar racing -- this ain't go-karts or anything anymore," he continued. "We are going to race each other hard and we are professionals. We know each other's limits. I mean, tough luck for him."
The real tough luck stories at Iowa belonged to Montoya, Dixon and Tony Kanaan, all of whom suffered mechanical failures with championship implications for Dixon and Montoya.
Montoya crashed just 10 laps in after suffering a right front suspension or wheel-bearing failure. But he lost only six points from his championship lead because Dixon suffered a mechanical failure on the right-rear corner of his Ganassi Chevrolet with 70 laps to go while running in the top five.
Kanaan, in another Ganassi Chevrolet, dropped out with engine problems at two-thirds distance.
That opened the door for Rahal to move up to second in the standings, 42 points behind Montoya. Dixon is now third, 48 points back, and Penske teammatesHelio Castroneves and Will Power remain in title contention, both within 55 points of Montoya with three races remaining.
Rahal, who won at Auto Club Speedway and has strung together a series of consistent results, got a yellow when he needed it Saturday night to make work the alternate pit strategy Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing was forced into by a flat tire.
Rahal's championship run is all the more astounding when Honda's struggles in 2015 are taken into consideration. He called his run to fourth place his hardest race ever.
"I'm spent," he said. "I'm ready for a good beer and a nice sleep.
"Nights like tonight are what build character, and that builds champions so I hope we can get there."
Another IndyCar championship is out of the question this year for Hunter-Reay, but Saturday's win at Iowa helped ease the pain.
"It's still been a tough season, but that makes this win sweet," he said. "This is a big deal, to earn the race win, really earn it in the fashion that we did -- it's a statement win. It's big for us. It's big for everybody involved in this team."