INDIANAPOLIS -- Ryan Hunter-Reay and Helio Castroneves went at it with swords drawn, a thrilling, heart-stopping five-lap duel to the checkered flag in the 98th Indianapolis 500. Hunter-Reay's margin of victory was less than a car length at 220 miles per hour (plus six-hundredths of a second), for the second-closest margin of victory in race history.
The win further validated Hunter-Reay's status as the top American driver of this IndyCar reconstruction era and elevated his career to superstar status. The 33-year-old Floridian was the Verizon IndyCar Series champion in 2012, but you've got to have your face on the Borg-Warner Trophy in order to climb all the way to the top. Hunter-Reay made it with a masterful drive from the 19th starting position, passing and holding off Castroneves in the final laps.
Castroneves did his part by providing the drama at the end. He was going for his fourth Indy 500 victory and an opportunity to be a full-fledged legend. A.J. Foyt, Al Unser and Rick Mears are the only three drivers with four wins.
Hunter-Reay and Castroneves passed each other twice following a restart on lap 196. Turn 4 was where Hunter-Reay took the lead by going to the outside of Castroneves as they came to the white flag and he didn't give it up for five corners.
"I tried man, trust me," Castroneves said. "I really tried. You can't question destiny. Today I did everything; my team did everything we possibly could have done to win this race. So close to win four. It's frustrating to be so close to something that only a few guys did.
"Great race. Second place is good, but second sucks. Congrats to Andretti Autosports. [Ryan Hunter-Reay] did everything he could. Unfortunately, it wasn't our day. It was great to see an American driver winning."
Castroneves, a Brazilian who has lived full-time in south Florida since the mid-1990s, has an American-born daughter and previously indicated that he will seek American citizenship. He took a question from a reporter about his comment on an American driver winning: "Is that diplomacy speaking or do you think there's a benefit to having an American win here?"
The driver seemed offended by it.
"No, why would I just say something I haven't meant?" he responded. "It's great, because for several years the series had a foreigner up front. It's great to see American drivers succeed. Third was [Marco] Andretti. You see the top two are American drivers. [The] IndyCar Series is showing it's the right way to go, as well. I say that in a positive way and I mean it."
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Sam Hornish in 2006 was the last American to win before Hunter-Reay on Sunday. Castroneves understands that having an American star brings value to the series. IndyCar has international appeal, to drivers and television viewers, but it is a series that races primarily in America. The mix of American and foreign-born drivers requires a delicate balance to appeal to both groups. Hunter-Reay has proved that he ranks among the world's best drivers with this Indy 500 win and he has helped restore international prestige for his countrymen in the sport.
"I'm a proud American boy, that's for sure," Hunter-Reay proclaimed to the world in the Victory Lane post-race interview.
The estimated crowd of 300,000 roared. Fans would have been happy to see Castroneves climb the fence, his trademark victory celebration, but they were clearly thrilled that it was Hunter-Reay who drank the milk.
"This is an international sport, open-wheel," Hunter-Reay explained. "We do battle on every different type of discipline -- short ovals, street courses. The only series in the world like that. The Verizon IndyCar Series is a true drivers' championship. That's what I love the most about it. Winning this one here is definitely a game changer.
"The championship is right next to this win. This one is probably on top of that. It's amazing. It hasn't yet sunk in."
Hunter-Reay's victory was the third at Indy for team owner Michael Andretti. The late Dan Wheldon won it in 2005 and Dario Franchitti took the checkered flag in 2007.
"I want to add going up against the best in the world is a big deal," Andretti said. "That's why to me it does feel more precious when an American wins it, because he won in an international field. That's when you feel really proud."
Andretti played a critical role in Hunter-Reay's rise to stardom, hiring him on his talent while building sponsorship and the team around him.
"I remember going back to 2010, having a shot at Andretti Autosports," Hunter-Reay said. "It was a one-off deal. This is the opportunity of a lifetime. I was bouncing from team to team. I had to make it happen in a short amount of time, pressure-packed circumstances. We won our second (actually fourth) race together at Long Beach. It's just a fantastic, fantastic story. You can't do it alone."
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Hunter-Reay won two races during the 2003 and 2004 Champ Car World Series as a budding star, but he lost his job in Champ Car following the 2006 season, due to a lack of sponsorship. He was out of open-wheel racing completely in 2006. Hunter-Reay did some sports car racing and even took a look at trying NASCAR.
Bobby Rahal restarted Hunter-Reay's open wheel career by bringing him to IndyCar at midseason in 2007 where he ran the entire 2008 season. Hunter-Reay was the Indy 500 Rookie of the Year after finishing sixth that year.
Hunter-Reay moved to Tony George's Vision Racing for the opening six IndyCar races and drove the final 11 for Foyt in 2009. Andretti signed him to a one-race deal for 2010 to keep his IndyCar career alive.
It has become a renaissance for Hunter-Reay. After he won the IndyCar season title two years ago, Roger Penske offered him a multi-year contract. Hunter-Reay stayed with Andretti out of loyalty. After several life turns before his historic Sunday, it is clear he has the talent and the character to keep it going.