HOMESTEAD, Fla - Rahal Letterman Racing opened its season with a strong seventh-place finish in Saturday night's IndyCar Series lidlifter at Homestead-Miami Speedway but the excitement over a strong finish was tempered slightly for both the team and driver Ryan Hunter-Reay (#17 Ethanol Dallara/Honda/Firestone) after a puzzling end wrested a top-five finish from the Ohio-based squad.

Hunter-Reay and the RLR squad started ninth and quickly showed that they were ready for the season to get underway. Hunter-Reay vaulted to seventh after two laps and walked down Danica Patrick for sixth after just 14 orbits of the 1.5-mile Homestead oval.

The car stayed in that region for most of the evening and the Ethanol machine appeared to have a sixth-place finish in hand with seven laps to go, with Patrick trying in vain to make up five seconds on the Floridian in the #17 Indy Car.

But things went sour with seven laps to go when rookie Ernesto Viso spun in Turn Three. Viso spun in front of race leader Tony Kanaan, who nearly avoided the stricken car, but grazed him with his right-front tire, bending Kanaan's front suspension and raising his tire off the ground.

But Kanaan was able to match the pace-car speed of 65 mph during the cleanup for Viso's crash, while Hunter-Reay prepared himself to fight off the sure-to-come advances of seventh-placed Patrick and eighth-placed Ed Carpenter, who were now closed on Hunter-Reay's tail because of the caution.

Unfortunately when the green flag waved with three laps to go, Kanaan had no chance to go any faster than his previous pace car speed, which bottled up the field roaring off of Turn Four. Much of the field checked up, Hunter-Reay went to the high side of Turn Four as he tried to avoid the glut of cars forming in front of him, and by the time he was able to get sorted, Patrick and Carpenter had gotten by. Hunter-Reay fought back on the last two laps but could not make up the ground, but did get one spot back at the flag when he passed Kanaan's wounded vehicle, earning a seventh-place finish.

"We had a fifth-place finish in the bag and got robbed on the last restart," Hunter-Reay lamented. "We went through this in the driver's meeting and I don't know exactly how it happened, but it killed our race. We really had a good rhythm going to day and the car was strong, but we didn't get the points we deserved for it."

Team co-owner Bobby Rahal agreed after watching his team post its best Homestead finish in three years.

"I was really impressed with the pace Ryan had all night," Rahal recalled. "We were right there with the top guys all night and we got caught in a bad restart. But while we are disappointed in the finish, we're encouraged by how we ran tonight."

The finish is the third top-seven result in the last four oval starts for Hunter-Reay, and gives the team some momentum heading into next weekend's street-course event in St. Petersburg, Florida.

"The guys did the right things with the car all day and as a team, I think we really performed well tonight, especially in the latter half of the race," Hunter-Reay said. "I thought I drove a pretty good race and the team gave me everything I needed to compete with the big teams. We'll take this finish and head out looking to do better next weekend."

The Rahal Letterman Racing team will pack its gear and head to upstate to the streets of St. Petersburg as the IndyCar Series' Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg runs next Sunday afternoon. The three-day event gets underway with practice on Friday with qualifying set for Saturday. Sunday's race gets underway at 2:30 Eastern Time and can be seen live on ESPN. Fans can follow all of the action throughout the weekend via the live timing and scoring link on www.indycar.com

-credit: rlr