Ryan Hunter-Reay kisses the Astor Cup after winning the IZOD IndyCar Series… (Robert Laberge / Getty Images )
Will Power stood in Victory Lane — but not for the reason he had hoped.
Heartbroken but gracious, the Australian driver was there to congratulate Ryan Hunter-Reay, who won the IndyCar championship Saturday night by only three points over Power after Power found disaster early in the race.
As owner-driver Ed Carpenter was on his way to winning the MAVTV 500 at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, the season finale of the Izod IndyCar Series, Power — who started the race 17 points ahead of Hunter-Reay — crashed only 55 laps into the 250-lap race.
Penske's crew hustled to repair Power's car so that he could get back on the track and possibly still win the championship.
But Power's car soon was retired for good, and Hunter-Reay, 31, won the title by finishing fourth in a wild finish to the race, which featured 29 lead changes.
"I cannot believe we're IndyCar champions," said Hunter-Reay, who won a series-high four races this year and became the first American IndyCar champion since Sam Hornish Jr. in 2006. "My dream has come true."
It was the third consecutive year that Power, who drives for Team Penske, came to the season finale with a shot at the title and saw it slip away.
"No use dwelling on it," Power said. "Racing's tough, IndyCar in particular is tough."
Hunter-Reay, Power said, was "definitely a deserving champion."
As the race neared its end, Hunter-Reay — who drives for the Andretti Autosport team — needed to finish fifth or better to win the title and he barely was hanging on to fourth.
But on the last lap, Takuma Sato spun and hit the wall, bringing out the caution flag and freezing everyone's position as the race ended.
"It was a nerve-racking day," Andretti Autosport owner Michael Andretti said. "We knew it was going to be a race of survival."
Dario Franchitti, the 2011 champion, finished second behind Carpenter, and Franchitti's teammate Scott Dixon was third.
"We have been trying to win ovals all year and finally got it done tonight," Carpenter said. "I felt really confident coming into the race."
It was a dramatic season's end for the IndyCar series, which returned to Auto Club Speedway for the first time since 2005 and drew about 25,000 spectators for the race.
Power started 13th and Hunter-Reay started 22nd after both were penalized 10 starting positions because their teams made unapproved engine changes for the race.
A dozen other drivers did the same, and all willingly incurred the penalty, because they wanted fresh engines for the Fontana track.
On Lap 55, Power had just passed Hunter-Reay for 13th when Power's car hit a seam in Turn 2, spun around, narrowly missed clipping Hunter-Reay's car and slammed into the wall.
When Power's wife Elizabeth saw the crash on her pit-road television screen, she recoiled in shock and cupped her hand over her mouth.
As his car was hauled to the garage, Power changed out of his racing suit. But his crew furiously began repairing his car.
Power then went back into the race even though he was 70 laps behind the leaders, but he hoped to garner enough points to still capture the title.
He ran another dozen laps before retiring for good and finished 24th in the 26-car field.
"Full credit to my guys," Power said. "I feel bad for them to lose another championship."
Only hours before the race, Andretti Autosport said it signed Hunter-Reay to a two-year contract extension.