MOTEGI, Japan- Step by step/rung by rung/higher and higher - Huey Lewis and the News

While everyone else was saving fuel at the end of Sunday's Indy Japan 300, Ryan Hunter-Reay (#17 Ethanol Dallara/Honda/Firestone) was storming through the field, overcoming misfortune on a pair of pit stops to work all the way up to fourth before settling for a seventh-place finish - equaling Rahal Letterman Racing's best finish of the 2008 IndyCar Series season.

Hunter-Reay's second top-seven finish of the year - in his first-ever visit to the 1.5-mile Twin Ring Motegi oval - vaulted him ahead of Hideki Mutoh and A.J. Foyt IV in the IndyCar standings and into a temporary tie for seventh in the series standings with Marco Andretti, pending the results of tomorrow's Long Beach race.

As was the case in Homestead, the Rahal Letterman Racing team transformed the #17 car over the course of the 200-lap event into one that was as fast as any on the track in the latter stages of the race.

"Again we started with a car that was loose at the beginning of the day and a real handful, and made it better throughout the race," said Hunter-Reay. "That's what we need to continue doing and if we do, we are going to find ourselves in the thick of it as the season goes on."

The RLR squad got caught out twice by caution flags that waved directly after green-flag pit stops, finding themselves on the tail end of the lead lap on both occasions since they were among the first to pit on long green-flag runs. Marty Roth's crash on Lap 47 was the first of these occurrences, while Roger Yasukawa's brake trouble stopped the field again on Lap 140, just after Hunter-Reay had made his trip down Pit Lane.

With fuel loads lasting just over 50 laps under green-flag conditions, much of the field - including eventual racewinner Danica Patrick - opted to back off the throttle when the race restarted on Lap 150 in hopes of making it to the end of the race without stopping. The key to the race came just before that restart when Patrick, Helio Castroneves and Ed Carpenter pitted to top off their tanks - a move that was unavailable to Hunter-Reay due to the fact that the untimely caution after his stop meant that he was being waved around to the tail end of the field for the restart. Therefore, the fifth-year Indy Car driver knew that he would have to stop regardless of the pace, so he turned up the wick and climbed from 10th to fourth in 28 laps, before pitting with 11 laps to go.

Those quick laps paid off at the end as he held on to seventh place, using the ground gained when everyone was saving fuel to keep his spot while everyone other than Patrick and Castroneves pitted once more prior to the checkered flag.

"Seventh place in my first time at Motegi is pretty good, but we're disappointed because we had a top-five finish in the bag," Hunter-Reay lamented. "Townsend Bell got in front of us while a lap down at the end and I got real loose and lost a spot to Ed (Carpenter), but we made up some ground in the points and we'll go on from here.

-credit: rlr