Hunter-Reay's edges Castroneves in Indy 500

Hunter-Reay's edges Castroneves in Indy 500

25 May 2014 – Andretti Autosport's Ryan Hunter-Reay became the first American to win the Indianapolis 500 since 2006 on Sunday when he executed a dramatic last lap pass on Helio Castroneves, crossing the line 0.06s ahead in the second-closest finish in the event's 98-race history.

The two men had also traded blows with Hunter-Reay's team-mate Marco Andretti, with all three of them spending substantial time leading the race throughout the afternoon.

But heading into the final few laps, several failed overtaking attempts from Andretti meant that it would be Hunter-Reay and Castroneves left to contest IndyCar's oldest race. The two traded the lead in each of the last five laps, but Andretti would settle for yet another podium finish in the 500, extending the Andretti drought at the legendary speedway. Rookie Carlos Munoz, who nearly won last year's event, finished in fourth.

After running the first three quarters of the race caution-free, a frantic run to the finish was set up when the field was stopped under a red flag for repairs to the SAFER barriers with eight laps to go. Worried that his current P1 position would leave him a "sitting duck" on the restart, Hunter-Reay held on to win his first Indianapolis 500 whilst denying Castroneves his fourth.

The day began with much fanfare as a crowd of nearly a quarter of a million people streamed into the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Countless former winners were on hand, and Jim Nabors sang "Back Home Again in Indiana" for the 34th and final time in his career.

At the start, James Hinchcliffe took the early lead into Turn 1 as the drivers settled into what would be the longest green flag stint to start a 500 in history. Hunter-Reay picked up seven spots in the first couple of laps, starting a charge that would see him climb all the way up from his starting spot of P19.

Also on a tare was Townsend Bell, quickly gaining 12 spots by using the exact same car setup as Tony Kanaan last year. The 2013 winner's setup combined with Bell's no-holds-barred racing style meant he would slice his way through the field, aided by a lack of cautions and restarts.

Ten laps in, pole-sitter Ed Carpenter overtook Hinchcliffe into turn 1, giving Carpenter the first of many turns throughout the day leading the pack. What started strongly for both men ended in tears as late race contact between the two of them and Bell sent Carpenter and Hinchcliffe spinning into the Turn 1 wall, again proving that this generation of IndyCars cannot go three-wide into Indy's first turn.

Bell's own race would be run with just ten laps to go. Running in a strong second place, it appeared that something broke on the car that sent him spearheading into the wall. The debris that would be strewn across the track prompted race director Beaux Barfield to throw the red flag with nine laps to go, attempting to subvert another Indy 500 ending under caution.

Before the late race drama, though, a third of the field had turns leading the race, with the loudest roars from the crowd coming whenever Andretti assumed P1. It was clear from the start that Andretti had a strong car, but he would need to overcome the fabled "Andretti Curse" if he hoped to stay in the race until the end, much less win it.  If he had succeeded, he would join his grandfather, Mario, who won the race in 1969.

With several rounds of green flag pit stops coming in the first 100 laps, the field had already begun to adopt different pit strategies, whether it be Scott Dixon pitting off sequence or Juan Pablo Montoya stretching his fuel runs and putting himself in prime position amongst the leaders. Dixon's strategy also pushed the team to take some downforce off the car late in the race, but this proved to be a contributing factor when he spun and crashed with 33 laps remaining.

Montoya's race would temporarily unravel when, after a 30-lap stint, the Colombian sped entering the pit lane, drawing a costly drive-through penalty. Despite this, when the red flag came out he had worked his way back to P5, which was where he would finish in his storied return to the IMS.

The first caution came out on Lap 149 when Charlie Kimball spun into the infield. Dixon's crash would bring out the next, but at this point the race had set the record for the fastest opening 100 laps in history. Simultaneously, Josef Newgarden came to rest in the infield after being punted by Martin Plowman, who hadn't slowed up when the caution came out. Plowman would continue the race while Newgarden would be done.

In the important final round of pit stops, Bell had jumped several cars to put himself into P3, but Hunter-Reay would have the lead in front of Carpenter with 25 laps to go. On the ensuing restart, Bell shot to the outside of Carpenter just as P5 James Hinchcliffe dove to the inside of the pole-sitter.  A brief glance off the side of Bell's KV Racing Technology car sent Carpenter into Hinchcliffe, collecting the latter two against the Turn 1 wall. A livid Carpenter put all the blame on latecomer Hinchcliffe---a notion the Canadian graciously accepted after being released from the infield care center.

As the dust cleared and the race went back to green with 20 to go, Andretti made his move into P2, beginning a revolving door of back-and-forth lead changes. Andretti took the lead only for Hunter-Reay to fight back the next lap. Suddenly Castroneves appeared from what was once a sizeable gap, easily dispatching of Bell and Andretti with his sights set on Hunter-Reay.

Four laps later, the three-time 500 winner would squeeze between the Andretti Autosport driver and the pit wall to take P1. Guaranteeing that an inside pass would not beat him, Castroneves made Hunter-Reay go outside into the first turn on the next lap, but the stability of the American's chassis handled it easily. The two would trade the lead in a similar matter several times over the next couple of laps, while every once in a while, Andretti would attempt to get by into P2. With each attempt came a necessity to get out of the throttle and downshift to avoid a crash, meaning Andretti would not be able to catch the leaders.

With nine laps to go, though, Bell's car suddenly shot sideways out of Turn 2, striking the wall and spraying carbon fiber across the track. The ensuing cleanup and SAFER barrier repairs meant that the red flag would stop the race a lap later, but the racing after the restart was exactly the same: With each lap there was a different leader, the top two trading spots over and over with the finish line mere miles away.

Helio was the first to strike on a restart, but Hunter-Reay took him into Turn 1 the next lap. With every successive spin around the track, the overtaking moves got bolder, but Castroneves held the lead with five miles remaining, again making Hunter-Reay go around the outside to pass him. With a lap to go, the 2012 champion accepted the challenge and made his move, building a big enough gap through the first two turns that it was nearly impossible for Helio to catch him.

Shooting down the frontstretch, Castroneves pulled to the outside but ran out of track, crossing the yard of bricks six hundredths of a second later. Gracious in defeat, Helio congratulated Hunter-Reay for a close battle and for joining the club of Indy 500 winners.

Andretti Autosport would also have reason to celebrate, finishing in first, third, fourth and sixth on the day. One of those cars, that of Kurt Busch, finished just outside the top five after a strong showing. Shortly after the chequered flag, though, he boarded a helicopter to take him to the airport.  From there he will fly to Charlotte, North Carolina, where he will compete in tonight's Coca-Cola 600 for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series.

A non-factor in today's race was defending race winner Tony Kanaan. After gaining a few positions on the start, Kanaan ran out of fuel on track, coasting into the pit lane. After servicing his car, the mechanical starter stripped the gear inside of Kanaan's gearbox, forcing lengthy repairs to the Chip Ganassi car, putting the Brazilian 18 laps down. He would finish in P26, a disappointing 23 laps down.

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