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A race which ran caution-free for the first three-quarters of its 500 mile distance ended in a flourish of cautions including one that forced a red flag stoppage, before Ryan Hunter-Reay finally overcame a six-lap shootout with Helio Castroneves for a thrilling victory in the 98th running of the famous Indianapolis 500 in the second-closest ever finish in the event's history.
"It's a dream come true," said Hunter-Reay, the first American winner of the event since Sam Hornish Jr. in 2006. "[The Indy 500] is American history; this is better than a championship. I hope the fans loved it because I was on the edge of my seat."
Hunter-Reay had been on the move early from his disappointing 19th place on the grid, and once he'd made it to the front pack he proved impossible to shift for the remainder of the race. Polesitter Ed Carpenter had looked to be shaping up as the main threat to Hunter-Reay until the #20 was taken out in a late accident with James Hinchcliffe, and then it was Castroneves who became the biggest challenger in the closing laps following the red flag caused by a big accident for Townsend Bell.
Hunter-Reay also had to slam the door shut on his team mate Marco Andretti in the final laps, at the climax of a race that was remarkably successful for Andretti Autosports as a team, with Andretti finishing in third, Carlos Munoz in fourth and Kurt Busch in sixth. Only James Hinchcliffe failed to make it to the finish after that clash with Carpenter.
Hinchcliffe had earlier claimed the initial race lead at the green flag ahead of polesitter Ed Carpenter, when the green flag came out at Indianapolis Motor Speedway shortly after noon local time. The start was clean, although at the back of the field Ryan Briscoe survived a scary moment up high near the wall that forced him to make an early visit to pit lane for fresh tyres that put him a lap down.
Hinchcliffe held the lead for the first ten laps before Carpenter found his way back past, with Will Power maintaining third ahead of Helio Castroneves, JR Hildebrand and Marco Andretti. Drivers were more concerned with meeting fuel conservation targets than achieving raw speed at this early stage of the 200-lap, 500-mile race. Further back, the big early movers all moving in the right direction from lowly grid spots were Townsend Bell, Takuma Sato - and Hunter-Reay.
Carpenter was the first among the leaders to pit on lap 29. When it all shook out, Hinchcliffe had got the jump on Carpenter and was back in the lead. Power was soon also able to pass the #20, and then he blew past Hinchcliffe for the lead on lap 37. After that, Hinchcliffe's pace started to drop off and he quickly fell out of the top ten with handling issues, which helped Carpenter reclaim second place ahead of his team mate JR Hildebrand.
Marco Andretti blasted to the front on lap 58, four laps before his second green flag pit stop of the day. A problem with one of the tyre changes cost Marco time and when the pit stops were complete he found that he was now running second to Castroneves, with Carpenter in third ahead of Scott Dixon, Will Power and Ryan Hunter-Reay.
While Dixon had been boosted by the pit stops, his team mate Tony Kanaan was not so lucky. Last year's Indy 500 winner went several laps down as the Ganassi crew struggled to refire the #10 and get it back underway which then caused a stripped gear that needed repairing. Kanaan was not the only driver with a car in trouble: Graham Rahal had already retired after 44 laps with electrical problems, while Pippa Mann's car was also off the pace and significantly down on power. Buddy Lazier was another in trouble, off the lead lap after being served a pit lane speeding penalty.
Castroneves surrendered the lead on lap 92 for his third pit stop of the day, with the rest of the field cycling through over the next few laps; once again, it was Juan Pablo Montoya who ran the longest stint. After the sequence was complete, the top six at the midway point of the race consisted of Hunter-Reay in the lead for the first time ahead of Castoneves, Andretti, Dixon, Carpenter and Power.
There hadn't been a single caution so far, making it by far the longest caution-free start to the Indianapolis 500 since such records began in 1976 making it the quickest first half (at one hour ten minutes) and the fastest (an average speed of 211.871mph compared with the previous high of 177.687mph set just last year.) Unsurprisingly that pace took its toll, with problems for Mikhail Aleshin on pit lane dropping him five laps off the lead, and mechanical issues for Lazier forcing the #91 to retire after 87 laps. Even pole winner Ed Carpenter was in trouble with blistering tyres that forced an early pit stop that dropped him back to 20th place, before Castroneves eventually signalled the next round of green-flag pit stops for the leaders by coming in on lap 122. After the pit stops were completed, Castroneves was once again running second behind Hunter-Reay, with the rest of the top six consisting of Andretti, Carpenter, Dixon and Hildebrand. However there were some costly pit lane speeding penalties for Power and for Montoya (who had been looking on course for needing one stop less than the rest of the field), while Carlos Munoz was also penalised after knocking over one of the tyres stacked in his pit box.
Marco Andretti soon slipped past his team mate for the race lead, and Carpenter had just come in for his latest off-sync stop when the first caution of the afternoon finally came out after a phenomenal 150-lap green flag run: the unhappy recipient was Charlie Kimball, who spun coming out of turn 2. Despite managing to keep his contact with the outside and inside walls relatively light, the #83 was nonetheless done for the day.
Having stopped only three laps before the caution, Carpenter stayed out to assume the lead ahead of Hunter-Reay, Andretti, Dixon, Castroneves and Hinchcliffe. Kurt Busch was running just inside the top ten in ninth place, with Justin Wilson in 11th ahead of Montoya and Power who were both seeking to overcome those pit lane speeding penalties from the previous stop. Hunter-Reay immediately passed Carpenter for the lead at the restart on lap 157, only for Carpenter to wrest it right back next time by. The positions flipped back and forth a couple more times before Hunter-Reay finally settled into the top spot for a longer stint, only for that to prove shortlived when Scott Dixon lost the back end of the #9 through the final corner on lap 169, planting the car into the outside wall and forcing the chasing cars to scatter to avoid the wreck and the debris. Unfortunately, an unsighted Martin Plowman failed to react in time and ended up running into the back of Josef Newgarden's car, spinning it into the grass run-off.
Everyone made their final stops of the day with under 25 laps to run, and Hunter-Reay kept the lead over Carpenter off pit road and they were followed by Bell, Hinchcliffe and Castroneves, with Marco Andretti losing three spots in the pits. It was looking like the race was coming down to a Hunter-Reay/Carpenter face-off, but the run at the restart down to turn 1 put paid to that when Carpenter found himself in the middle of a three-way with Bell going around the outside and Hinchcliffe trying to dive down the inside. The combination didn't work and Carpenter was pinched down into contact with Hinchcliffe, which sent the #20 and #27 into the wall while Bell escaped disaster to pick up second place behind Hunter-Reay.
Hunter-Reay managed a great restart on lap 180 while Andretti got the run to take second from Bell. Castroneves was also on a charge, taking third place from Bell next time by and then a couple of laps later demoting Andretti from second place which allowed him to set his sights on the lead which he claimed with 16 laps remaining. Hunter-Reay was quickly able to reverse the situation to lead again and it looked as though he might just had enough of an edge to keep it all the way to the chequered flag when a debris caution was called on lap 191 after contact between Jacques Villeneuve and Sebastian Saavedra coming out of turn 2.
The debris proved academic, because a split second later there was a bigger pile of wreckage to worry about when Townsend Bell's #6 turned around going into the same corner and slammed hard into the SAFER barrier. It seemed doubtful whether the track could be cleaned up and the barrier repaired in time to finish the race under green, so race director Beaux Barfield threw a red flag to suspend the race and bring the cars onto pit road to allow the track crews to get to work.
Once that was done, there was a six lap sprint to the finish, with Hunter-Reay, Castroneves, Andretti and Munoz ahead of Montoya, Busch, Sebastien Bourdais and Justin Wilson at the green flag. Hunter-Reay held the lead for the first lap but after that he and Castroneves traded the lead back and forth in a no-holds-barred, full-throttle climax to the race. As the white flag was shown to the leaders, Castroneves's slender lead down the start/finish straight was overhauled by Hunter-Reay across the line with one to go, and the Andretti Autosport car sealed the deal in the last run through turn 1, pulling out enough of a lead over his rival in the final 2.5-miles that left Castroneves with too much work to do to achieve his dream of a fourth Indy 500 title, and instead the Brazilian was a car length short - six hundredths of a second - as Hunter-Reay claimed victory.
"I did everything I could do," said Castroneves afterwards. "What a fight. But certainly taking the positive out of this, it was a great race. I did everything I could obviously to try to stop him. I do not take it for granted. I'm extremely happy with the result."
Marco Andretti had briefly featured in the final duel before seemingly opting to sit back and wait in case the top two took each other out. He finished a quarter of a second behind Castroneves in third place, with Munoz in fourth and Montoya an impressive fifth in his first Indy 500 since he had won it on his first attempt in 2000. Equally as impressive was Kurt Busch crossing the line in sixth place, equalling the previous best result in the race set by a driver attempting to do the Indy 500/Coca-Cola 600 'double' back in 2001, when the man in question had been Busch's current NASCAR Sprint Cup Series team owner Tony Stewart.
But Busch was absent from the post-race celebrations, as he ran for his helicopter and connecting flight from Indianapolis back to Charlotte, North Carolina for his evening shift at the office. And in any case, the spotlight was firmly on the man wearing the winner's garland and drinking the traditional pint of milk in victory circle: Ryan Hunter-Reay had graduated to the class of legends who could affix 'Indianapolis 500 winner' to his name for the rest of his racing career.
Full race results for the 2014 Indianapolis 500
and championship standings after round 5