INDIANAPOLIS - Chants of "USA! USA!" followed Ryan Hunter-Reay as fans ecstatically celebrated the Indianapolis 500's first American winner in eight years.
They waved flags and roared their approval when, in Victory Lane, Hunter-Reay described himself as "a proud American."
"Being an American boy, I think when you look at maybe the NASCAR side of it, it's all Americans," Hunter-Reay said. "This is an international sport, open-wheel. We do battle on every different type of discipline, short ovals, street courses, the only series in the world like that. IndyCar Series is a true drivers' championship. That's what I love most about it."
On Sunday, Hunter-Reay earned his first Indy 500 by beating one of the very best in a thrilling finish to the "Greatest Spectacle in Racing."
Hunter-Reay peeked around Helio Castroneves, then reversed course and dipped inside for a daredevil pass and the late lead. Castroneves charged back to the front, winning a drag race down the frontstretch at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. And then, in a stirring wheel-to-wheel battle between a pair of bright yellow cars, Hunter-Reay seized the lead once more Sunday as the drivers hurtled toward the finish with a single, 2.5-mile lap remaining.
With nobody in front of him, Hunter-Reay used the entire track to keep Castroneves in his rearview mirror. He nipped him at the line by less than half a car length, denying his Brazilian rival a chance at history.
The finish was well worth the wait — to the fans who watched 150 laps of caution-free racing, to the drivers who bided their time unsure of when they should charge to the front and to Hunter-Reay, who finally got to drink the celebratory milk in his seventh try. He beat Castroneves by just 0.060 seconds — only the 1992 race had a closer finish when Al Unser Jr. beat Scott Goodyear by 0.043 seconds.
Castroneves, trying to become the fourth driver to win a fourth Indianapolis 500, settled for second. He said a caution with 10 laps to go broke his rhythm as the red flag came out so track workers could clean debris and repair a track wall.
"It was a great fight," he smiled. "I tell you what, I was having a great time. Unfortunately, second. It's good, but second sucks, you know what I mean?"
Marco Andretti finished third and Carlos Munoz was fourth as Andretti Autosport had three cars in the top four, as well as the winner.
Michael Andretti was thrilled to field the winning car, and his Andretti Autosport organization had four cars finish in the top six. That included Kurt Busch, who was sixth before leaving for the Coca-Cola 600 in North Carolina.
But as a father, Andretti had to balance his emotions to help son Marco deal with the disappointment of falling short in his ninth Indianapolis 500.
"It's a weird feeling because I really was disappointed for him," Michael Andretti said. "I know you only get that many shots. He had a car that was close, just not close enough. Yet I'm so happy and proud of the rest of the team. As a dad, disappointment. As a team owner, couldn't be happier. You have to try to balance those things."
Here are five other things that happened in the Indianapolis 500:
DIXON SPINS: Reigning IndyCar champion Scott Dixon made a rare mistake 33 laps from the finish, when he spun, lost control of his car and wrecked. It brought his race to an end and he finished 29th. He also "slapped my hand a little bit," when his car hit the wall.
"All of a sudden, it just started to slide midpack. I tried to catch it and there was no catching it," Dixon said. "I feel really bad for the guys. We had a pretty strong car all day."
RED FLAG RIGHT: Castroneves said that the red flag that flew with 10 laps left for Townsend Bell's wreck threw off his rhythm. He also acknowledged that it was the correct decision by race control. There was too much debris scattered across the track to clean it up quickly, and the red flag provided more green-flag laps to the finish — and a better show for the fans. "I believe it was the right decision, to be honest," Castroneves said. "It broke the rhythm, but it gave everybody a good, clean race. I think that was definitely the right choice."
RECORD-SETTING RACE: The 20 drivers on the lead lap at the end of the race set a record, breaking the mark of 19 set in 2009 and again last year. The 6,105 laps completed by the 33-car field also were a record, and Ryan Hunter-Reay's average winning speed of 186.563 mph was second only to Tony Kanaan's 187.433 last year. There were just 21 caution laps, matching the record for fewest since 1976, when yellow flags were first recorded.
VILLENEUVE'S RETURN: Jacques Villeneuve finished 14th in his return to the Indianapolis 500, the race he won in 1995. He struggled early with his car and lost a lap, but was able to get back on the lead lap during the four caution periods. He was impressed with the early pace of the race, which went caution free for 150 laps.
"After being away for 19 years, I was happy to be running quickly at the end," he said. "We ended on the lead lap and stayed away from the wall, so I think that's an acceptable result for being away for so long."
TOUGH DAY FOR TONY: Kanaan threw up his hands, shook his head in disbelief and rued the misfortune that ended his day early. The defending Indy 500 champion ran out of fuel during Sunday's race, leading to a lengthy pit stop because the starter was damaged on his car. He lost 18 laps during the repairs.
"Our day was pretty much over before it started," he said. "When you go that many laps down, you simply cannot recover. I always say this place chooses the winner and unfortunately today she didn't choose us."
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