By Patrick Reynolds
Indianapolis, IN- Ryan Hunter-Reayâ€™s lips pressed tightly together. He stared at a television set on the wall of the Indianapolis Motor Speedwayâ€™s interview room. His body language and facial expression radiated disappointment. He was watching video of the winning Indy 500 driver celebrate. There was a triumphant ride around the track with his family in a convertible. There was the kissing of the yard of bricks. There was pain from a race that Hunter-Reay could have won, but got away.
The winning driver was Tony Kanaan. The scene was one year ago.
Fast forward to 2014 and Hunter-Reay was celebrating redemption and the biggest victory of his life. He won this yearâ€™s Indianapolis 500 in a thrilling conclusion by outdueling Helio Castroneves to the finish line in the second-closest 500 ending in the raceâ€™s history.
â€œThis is what Iâ€™ve dreamed of since I was a little kid,â€ said Hunter Reay. â€œThe championship (2012) is right next to this win. This one is probably on top of that.
Hunter-Reay said, â€œLast year was very close. To lose to T.K. (Kanaan), I watched the replays on ESPN Classic, to see how close heâ€™s come so many times. Things just happen. Thatâ€™s this race.â€
Castroneves sat in the room Hunter-Reay did last year, and displayed the same disappointed and defeated expressions. The three-time 500 winner watched the video feed of Hunter-Reay celebrating with his family and reflected on how close he came to becoming a fourth four-time 500 winner.
Castroneves said, â€œI tried man, trust me. I really tried. We tried to find answers. You canâ€™t question destiny. Today I did everything we possibly could have done to win this race. So close to win four.â€
â€œSecond place, itâ€™s interesting when second place kind of sucks,â€ said Castroneves.
Hunter-Reay gave an indication in the first half of the race that he would be threat for the win. He moved from his 19th starting position into the top-five at the 200-mile mark, then into the lead at halfway.
The exciting sprint to the checkered was set up when fifth running Townsend Bell crashed in turn two with less than ten laps to go, scattering debris over a large area, and damaging the SAFER barrier. Indycar officials red flagged the race for cleanup and repair to the retaining wall.
Hunter-Reay and Castroneves traded the point three times in the last seven laps after the restart, including a move that saw Hunter-Reay dip into the backstretch grass.
â€œI was going with instinct mostly. A large part of that, thereâ€™s an aspect of just going for it because itâ€™s the Indy 500. Second doesnâ€™t really count, you know. In my head, I was going for it. I was going to make it try and happen. Maybe I was going to get pushed off in three and go into the wall. I was going to be in the gray, do anything I could to win this race,â€ said Hunter-Reay. â€œI came back down and cut a little grass for IMS, but we made it happen.â€
Castoneves made a run for the lead on the final lap and felt he could win, but came up short
â€œI said â€˜Iâ€™m going to get him on turn four and this is going to be great.â€™ But suddenly my car wasnâ€™t pulling enough. Especially because I noticed the wind, I was going against it. Iâ€™m like â€˜Go. Go. Go.â€™ As soon as I passed the pit entrance, Iâ€™m like; â€˜this is going to be close.â€™ It was closeâ€¦â€
Winning team owner Michael Andretti was on the radio with Hunter-Reay working strategy to win, while at the same time his son Marco was driving another team entry also challenging for victory.
â€œAs a Dad, you want him (Marco) to be here. I canâ€™t lie. It would have been so special. But its special having Ryan here. When itâ€™s your kid itâ€™s a different thing,â€ said Andretti.
â€œMarco gave it a heck of a shot. Unfortunately his car just wasnâ€™t quick enough there at the end,â€ Andretti said. â€œHeâ€™s one of the best drivers Iâ€™ve seen around this place.â€
The race began with the first 150 of 200 laps being contested under green while the race averaged a 212 MPH pace. The initial caution was caused by Charlie Kimballâ€™s spin and contact with the turn two wall. There were a total of five cautions in the raceâ€™s last 50 laps.
Marco Andretti finished a disappointing third after leading 20 laps and wanting to put an Andretti back in Indyâ€™s Victory Lane since his grandfather Mario in 1969. The 2013 raceâ€™s top rookie Carlos Munoz was fourth and Juan Pablo Montoya, making a return to open cockpit racing after several years in NASCAR was fifth.
NASCAR Sprint Cup Series regular Kurt Busch finished sixth. He quickly left the track and headed to Charlotte Motor Speedway in North Carolina to compete in that eveningâ€™s Coca Cola 600. Frenchman Sebastian Bourdais was seventh. Will Power fought back from a pit road speeding violation for eighth. Teenager Sage Karam improved the most positions, starting 31st and finish ninth. JR Hildebrand. Who was the heartbreaking 2011 second place finisher rounded out the top ten.
Hunter-Reay from Florida called himself a â€œproud American boyâ€ in the Victory Lane to the approving roar of the crowd. He became the first American to win the race since Sam Hornish in 2006.
â€œIâ€™m just so proud of this race, for more than one reason,â€ Hunter â€“Reay said. â€œI grew up as a fan of this sport first and foremost. My Dad took me as a kid to some Indycar races. I was just fascinated, especially with this race.â€
â€œWhen I was a kid, I looked up to the Andrettis, I looked up to Foyt, Unser, Mears, it was always trying to get there. Just to have a shot at it like this is unbelievable. Being an American boy, I think when you look at maybe the NASCAR side of it, itâ€™s all Americans. 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. The Verizon Indycar Series is a true driverâ€™s championship.â€
Hunter-Reay is now an Indycar Series and Indy 500 Champion. The painful disappointment he felt from losing a year ago is replaced with the euphoria of this yearâ€™s win. And now he can watch video of his own family celebrating his Indianapolis 500 triumph.
â€¢ Favorites polesitter Ed Carpenter and second starting James Hinchcliffe crashed out on lap 176. The pair, along with Bell, raced three-wide into turn one on the restart with Hinchcliffe and Carpenter winding up against the wall, which left Carpenter mad at Hinchcliffe.
â€¢ Hinchcliffe said, â€œPartially my fault. Partially Townsendâ€™s fault, 100 percent not Edâ€™s fault.â€
â€¢ Carpenter said, â€œI told him if he didnâ€™t have a concussion last week that I wouldâ€™ve punched him in the face.â€
â€¢ Montoya consistently ran farther on fuel than the other cars during the long green flag run to open the race. The team was working to place themselves in a position to win when Montoya was penalized for speeding on pit road.
â€¢ Defending race winner Tony Kanaan ran out of fuel and then had his starter gear stripped out when the crew tried to refire the car. He finished in 26th position, 23 laps down after repairs.
â€¢ Graham Rahal, son of 1986 winner Bobby, was the first car out with electrical troubles.
â€¢ 2008 500 champ Scott Dixon crashed out finishing 29th
â€¢ Jacques Villeneuve, 1995 500 victor finished 14th
â€¢ Jim Nabors sang â€œBack Home Again in Indianaâ€ during pre-race ceremonies for the final time. He retired at the age of 84.
â€¢ Nabors joined Mari Human George in giving the command to start engines.
â€¢ Andretti Autosport drivers finished in first, third, fourth, sixth, and 28th
Patrick Reynolds is a former professional NASCAR mechanic who hosts Motor Week LIVE! Mondays 7pm ET/ 4pm PT onwww.racersreunionradio.com