Ryan Hunter-Reay wins Indianapolis 500 in a white-knuckle finish over Helio Castroneves

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INDIANAPOLIS, Indiana — Ryan Hunter-Reay came out on top of a furious final six-lap battle with three-time winner Helio Castroneves to capture the 98th Indianapolis 500 here Sunday at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.


It was a dramatic finish for his first Indy win that featured three lead swaps inside the final six laps and ended with the second-closest finish in race history.


Hunter-Reay’s 0.600 margin of victory made him the first American to win the Indy 500 race since 2006, and Marco Andretti’s third-place finish made it two Americans in the top three.


Ryan Hunter-ReayRyan Hunter-Reay swigs the traditional bottle of milk after winning the 98th running of the Indianapolis 500 IndyCar auto race at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in Indianapolis, Sunday, May 25, 2014. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy) ORG XMIT: NAA144AP


“My dream has come true today,” Hunter-Reay said as he drank the traditional gulp of winner’s milk. “I’m a proud American boy, that’s for sure.”


NASCAR veteran and IndyCar rookie Kurt Busch finished a respectable sixth. That made it three Yanks in the top six with the Andretti-Autosports team landing four of their five cars in the top six.


In a tip of his cap the Brazilian, Castroneves, did find one thing to be pleased with.


“It’s great to see American drivers succeed here,” Castroneves said. “I say that in a very positive way.”


On the engine battle, it was Honda on top followed by Castroneves’ Chevrolet but Hondas also took three of the next four slots. But every engine needs a driver, and Hunter-Reay was the best on the day.


He used all of the track at the end as a rare red flag stopped the race with seven laps to go to clear debris from the track and set the stage for the anticipated shootout between he and Castroneves, with Andretti close enough to make it interesting.


Inside, outside, high and low, the drivers diced each other to the end, twice swapping leads at the start/finish and once inside a 2.5-mile tour. Then at the end most held their breath as, much like Sam Hornish in 2006, Castroneves came blazing out of the fourth turn with the leader, Hunter-Reay in his sights.


“I said, ‘I’m going to get him on Turn 4,” Castroneves reflected later. “When I passed pit entrance I said, ‘this is going to be close.’ ”


It was indeed close. But where Hornish was a half-car length better in 2006, Castroneves was half-a-car length short. Hunter-Reay had found ways around the 2.5-mile speedway few had seen before, then had the speed to stay in front at the end.


“We never ran any of those lines all month,” Hunter-Reay said. “I did my absolute best.”


Ryan Hunter-Reay, Helio CastronevesRyan Hunter-Reay throws a fist in the air after crossing the finish line less than a second ahead of Helio Castroneves. AP


One pass in particular made everyone hold their breath. With Castroneves in the lead he attempted to shut the door hard on an inside pass from Hunter-Reay. There appeared to be very little asphalt between the dangerous grass, the white safety line, and the three-time former winner.


“I tried not to leave him any room, but he found some,” Castroneves said. “We were trying to do stuff, normally over 220 mph, you don’t do. Some of those lines we had never used. So now we know.”


He grimaced as he spoke, as this victory would have put Castroneves in rare company as a four-time Indy winner, along with adding another Indy notch on team owner Roger Penske’s belt.


“It was a great race,” Castroneves said. “I tried. Trust me. But at the end of the day, it was a sting for everybody.”


All except Hunter-Reay, who entered the post-race media center with the crowd chanting, ‘U-S-A, U-S-A, U-S-A.’ In a race that had 34 lead changes with 11 different drivers, once Hunter-Reay made it to the front, he was pretty much there to stay.


“A fantastic fight to the finish,” Hunter-Reay said. “Winning it under green was fantastic. I was just biding my time. We did everything right today.”


Hunter-Reay started 19th on the grid and by lap 100 took his first lead in the race. From then until the end the fifth-year Indy 500 driver led more than half the remaining race, 56 laps, including the final three.


“He drove a perfect last six laps,” team owner Michael Andretti said.

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