Second place was the most advantageous place to be in the final laps of Sunday's Indianapolis 500.
After starting first on the race's final restart with six laps to go, Ryan Hunter-Reay traded the lead with Helio Castroneves four times and drove past Castroneves for the final time on the last lap to take the checkered flag in the second-closest finish in Indianapolis 500 history.
The margin of victory was a minuscule .06 seconds, second-closest only to Al Unser Jr.'s victory over Scott Goodyear in 1992 when he won by just .043.
Hunter-Reay, the 2012 IndyCar Series champion, is the first American-born driver to win the 500 since 2006 when Sam Hornish Jr. made a last-second pass of Marco Andretti for the victory.
The significance was not lost on him as he celebrated with the customary bottle of milk in Indianapolis Motor Speedway's victory lane as the winner of the 98th 500.
"I knew we had a good racecar," Hunter-Reay said of his first Indianapolis 500 win. "We didn't qualify well, we started 19th but we ran to the front. And I was just biding my time, making the right adjustments on the stops – I'm so excited now I can't even think. This is just a dream come true, we did everything right today and that's what it takes to win this race."
"I've watched this race since I was in diapers sitting on the floor in front of the TV. My son did it today, he watched me here. I'm thrilled – this is American history, this race. This is American tradition. Our auto industry is based on it and this is as big as a championship for me."
Kurt Busch, the first driver since Robby Gordon in 2004 to attempt both the Indianapolis 500 and NASCAR's Coca-Cola 600 in the same day, finished sixth. (Coincidentally, Robby Gordon's sister, Beccy, is Hunter-Reay's wife.)
Leading wasn't all it's normally cracked up to be late in the race because of the style of the cars. The draft, where a car behind another car can go faster because of a lack of air resistance, was an integral factor. Over the final six laps, the car in second could consistently close up on the lead car and make a move, as Castroneves did right as the green flag waved for the final time.
Castroneves assumed the lead for a second time following the restart with two laps to go after Hunter-Reay had made a daring pass for the lead on the backstretch, nearly going into the grass to complete the move. However, it left himself open for Hunter-Reay's winning move, which happened on the outside lane on the frontstretch as the drivers took the white flag.
A three-time Indianapolis 500 champion, Castroneves simply ran out of time to get back to Hunter-Reay, only closing to his bumper as the two got to the finish line.
It was incredibly thrilling racing as the two drove for the Borg-Warner Trophy after the last restart, but the impact of it was lessened because of ABC's presentation. While the camera views of the racing were top-notch, the production team inexplicably went split-screen three different times to show the reactions of Beccy Hunter-Reay and Adriana Henao, the girlfriend of Helio Castroneves.
Even worse, split-screen shots on lap 198 and lap 200 each lasted a half-lap. While the previous presence of Ashley Judd, the ex-wife of three-time Indianapolis 500 champion Dario Franchitti, likely played a role in the decision to show the significant others, the space devoted to them detracted significantly from the viewer experience over the final five laps. The racing spoke for itself; as the margin-of-victory strongly points out, it was far from a blowout. It deserved to be full-screen.
While the field was bunched up for the final quarter of the race, the first 75 percent scooted on by. The first caution came out on lap 150 for Charlie Kimball's accident, the longest time since the Indianapolis Motor Speedway started recording caution flags that a 500 had gone without a yellow flag.
The biggest incident of the day was when polesitter Ed Carpenter and James Hinchcliffe, the driver who started second, crashed together with 25 laps to go. The duo were three-wide with Townsend Bell entering turn one on a restart and made contact, skidding into the outside wall. After they exited their cars, Carpenter was very unhappy with Hinchcliffe, who made the group three-wide – a huge no-no entering turn one – on the inside.
Bell's car escaped unharmed from the incident, but his crash with 10 laps to go caused a red flag and set up the restart for the thrilling finish between Hunter-Reay and Castroneves.
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