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HUNTER-REAY PUTS AN AMERICAN BACK IN VICTORY LANE AT INDY
Author: Mark W. Theisen
Photo/Brady Whitesel (BroncosPitstop.com)
Photo/Brady Whitesel (BroncosPitstop.com)
May 25th 2014 -
     INDIANAPOLIS, INDIANA:  Ryan Hunter-Reay nipped Helio Castroneves by .0600 of a second to win the second closest Indianapolis 500 in history as a late race caution set up a scramble that had the crowd on their feet and the outcome not determined until the final few feet of the final lap.

     Not since 2006 has a driver that was born and raised in America won the "American Race” so rich with "American Tradition” and that fact did not go unnoticed around the track on Hunter-Reay’s victory salute lap as he was applauded with approval by everyone for a driver whose dream was to be a winner at Indianapolis.

     Hunter-Reay, who qualified a disappointing 19th for the race, was optimistic going into the race but the barn burning finish was not scripted and to the delight of everyone the cat and mouse game between Hunter-Reay, Castroneves and Marco Andretti the final five laps was something that will be remembered for a long time to come, it was treat to watch.

     That exciting finish was set up by an unprecedented red flag on lap 193 to repair the SAFER Barrier following a hard crash on lap 191 when it was clear that the race would end under the yellow before the barrier was repaired.  Indianapolis Motor Speedway officials threw the red flag for only the third time in 98 years to insure that the huge crowd would not be cheated out of the finish that was being set up at the time and it all worked out.

     The final 51 laps of the race were so much different than the first 149 which were run without a caution flag setting up what may have turned out to a fuel conservation race but once the yellow was unfurled once it came out it came out three additional times in the next 41 lap to set up the exciting finish.

     After the record setting lead changes in last year’s 500 a similar result was expected today but by the noon starting time track temperatures were much warmer and thus not conducive to the pass and draft mode of last year that produced the terrific racing action all around the track, but at the finish it was the pass and draft that figured into the final result again. 

     Fast Qualifier and pole sitter Ed Carpenter was unable to lead the first lap as his car hesitated at the green flag allowing James Hinchcliffe to get a jump on him and lead the first 10 laps of the race before Carpenter asserted his prowess taking the lead which he would hold on to until the first round of green flag pit stops that began on lap 28 when Carpenter made his initial stop.

     From the outset it was clear that Hunter-Reay and his Andretti Autosport Team had cleared what ailed the car during qualifications because he was clearly fast from the drop of the green flag moving into 9th place by the start of the round of pit stops.

     Will Power, defending 500 champion Tony Kanaan and rookie Mikhail Aleshin all took turns leading a lap before pulling off the track for their first stop and when all cars had completed their pit stops it was Hinchcliffe back on top pursued by Power who took over the top spot on lap 37 and was out in front on lap 50 when the caution free speed average for the race was a blistering 212.848 easily eclipsing the old mark of 207.027 set in 2000 by Juan Pablo Montoya.

     Marco Andretti began reeling in Power and took the lead for the first time on lap 58 as the second round of green flag pit stops were commencing.

     Andretti led 4 laps before making his second stop and was followed at the front by Castroneves, Scott Dixon and Montoya.

     Montoya, making his first start in the Indy 500 since his 200 win, was in a fuel saving mode
  from the outset and led for three laps before making his second stop of the race and when this round was complete it was Castroneves ahead of Andretti by .2511 seconds.

     Carpenter was again on the move after the second stop closing back in on the leaders passing Andretti for second on lap 78 and then began chasing down the leader.

     With the torrid pace of the race it was time for green flag pit stops again beginning on lap 92 when Castroneves pulled in giving the lead to Carpenter who in turn gave the top spot to Dixon and then Montoya.

      This round of stops was completed on lap 100 with Hunter-Reay completing his march to the front.  His third stop of the day was near flawless and at the end of the cycle he was now in the lead and earned the speed record for 100 laps during the 500 of 211.871 miles-per-hour which was set last year by A.J. Allmendinger at 177.687.

     At lap 100 or halfway it was Hunter-Reay followed by Castroneves, Andretti, Carpenter, Montoya, Dixon and Power and it was still anybodies race as pit crews struggled with fuel conservation and keeping up with the handling on the car as track temperatures continued to rise.

     Castroneves passed Hunter-Reay on lap, and as a precursor of what was to happen later, Hunter-Reay went back round him on lap 118.

     Carpenter fell from the front running back on lap 115 when he had to make an unscheduled pit stop to change blistered tires.

     Hunter-Reay paced the next six laps before round four of green flag pit stops began and at this juncture of the race Dixon and Montoya were the two drivers getting the most fuel mileage out of their cars.

     Power had his hopes for a win dashed when he was penalized for a pit road speed violation on lap 127 and Montoya suffered the same fate on lap 131 and at the time it looked as though their quest for the win was done.

     Hunter-Reay led at the completion of the fourth round of stops followed by his team mate Andretti and then the complexion of the race took an about face when Charlie Kimball spun in the second turn hitting the wall to bring out the first yellow flag of the race on lap150.

     Now instead of fuel mileage strategy it became a game of down force and who could drive their car with the best set up the final 50 laps and the yellow brought Carpenter, Power and Montoya back into the race.

     All the front runners made pit stops during this caution and it was Carpenter,  Hunter-Reay, Andretti, Dixon, Castroneves, Hinchcliffe, Townsend Bell, Carlos Munoz, Kurt Busch and Sebastien Bourdais in the top 10.

     Hunter-Reay and Carpenter traded the top spot for the next 14 laps before Dixon and Josef Newgarden made contact in the fourth turn on lap168 damaging both cars enough to force them from the race taking one of the contenders, Dixon, from the race.

     More pit stops followed with Alex Tagliani staying out for three caution flags to lead the race before stopping and when the green flag was waived it was Hunter-Reay followed by Carpenter, Bell, Hinchcliffe, Castroneves, Andretti, Munoz and Busch.

     As the green waived and the cars headed to the first turn Bell, Carpenter and Hinchcliffe went three wide, something that usually doesn’t work at Indianapolis and after Bell brushed Carpenter Hinchcliffe was on the outside and the two of them touched sending both into the wall taking two contenders from the race.  Bell made it through.

     Carpenter was irate after the accident and Hinchcliffe admitted to placing his car in the wrong place but the damage was done taking two contenders from the race.

     Debris from Jacques Villeneuve’s car fell to the track on lap 191 and was struck by Bell’s car sending it hard into the SAFER barrier in turn 2 bringing out the yellow and then the unprecedented red flag on lap 193 when it was clear significant damage to the wall needed attention and that the race needed to be finished under green-if possible.

     Only twice before in 1974 and then in 1973 was the 500 put under the red flag.  This was a bold and positively received decision on the part of the fans.

     After a delay of 10 minutes and 27 seconds the cars were restarted with the yellow coming out for lap 194 and 195.  Drivers received the green with Hunter-Reay leading Castroneves, Andretti, Munoz, Montoya, Busch, Bourdais and Power right behind.

     First has not been the preferred spot on a restart the past two years here and it was not for Hunter-Reay who saw Castroneves sling shot by on lap 196 but Hunter-Reay was not done and was back ahead at the end of lap 198.

     When the pair entered turn one on lap 198 it was Castroneves back in front but this time Hunter-Reay stunned him with a terrific move off the fourth turn, his left side wheels in the grass to lead as the white flag was waived.

     Castroneves made a move for the lead one final time off of turn four heading for the checkered flag but could not complete the pass and the wins was Hunter-Reay’s, his first at Indianapolis avenging a second place finish last year when a late race yellow flag cost him an attempt to overtake the leader, Kanaan and second running Munoz.

     "It’s a dream come true, man,” said Hunter-Reay.  "I can’t believe it.  I don’t know.  This is just the most fantastic team for what they have given me, not only today but last year as well.  My dream has come true today and I’m a proud American boy, that’s for sure.”

     Sam Hornish Jr was the last American driver to win the 500 and he did so for Roger Penske in 2006.

     When questioned about his pass for the lead Hunter-Reay said, "I believe I mowed some of IMS (Indianapolis Motor Speedway’s) grass but I got the pass accomplished.  I’m just happy I was able to pull it off.  I worked my way into position last year and did not get the attempt I got today because of the yellow.  It was great to see may friend Tony (Kanaan) win after so many years and I’m just greatful I got another chance this year or any year for that matter.”

     Michael Andretti, owner of Andretti Autosport which entered five cars in today’s race and saw four of them finish in the top 6, was elated with his third win as owner after being shut out as a driver in the 500 over his brilliant career.  

     "Outside of wanting to see my son (Marco) win the 500 I couldn’t be happier for Ryan (Hunter-Reay),” said Michael Andretti.  "He has been a true team player since we hired him and for him to preserve today and win is fitting tribute to his work ethic.  I think that pass in the fourth turn caught him (Castroneves) off guard, slowed his momentum just enough so he could not recover to make it up the last lap.”

     "We were using lines today that I have never seen before,” continued Hunter-Reay.  "To go as low as we did on the front stretch is something new and somehow we were able to pull it off and winning under green with a fantastic finish like that is great, we all raced each other clean but really hard.  I think it was a fantastic race.”

     "Well, certainly, the (red flag) kind of broke the rhythm, but first of all congrats to Andretti and Ryan Hunter-Reay.  They did an outstanding job,” said Castroneves.  "We were so close to carrying out the Pennzoil tradition that it is a shame.”  The bright yellow Pennzoil cars carried Rick Mears to two 500 wins and it was hoped the sponsorship of a new Pennzoil product and the yellow car would propel Castroneves to his fourth 500 win but he came up just short.

     "We did all we could to do win,” said Castroneves.  "We were in position all day long and at the end it came down to three cars.  It had to be great TV.  I had a great time and I hope the fans did as well.  It was a good point’s day for us but I really wanted to give this win to Roger (Penske) bad.  He has been so good to me.”

     When asked about finishing second today Castroneves concluded, "It’s good when second sucks!  This was fun despite not winning.”

     Marco Andretti finished third, followed by team mate, Munoz.  Castroneves team mate, Montoya finished fifth.

     "Yeah, I mean, close but never really dominated,” said Marco Andretti when asked about his day.  "I could get to the front but then got shuffled back.  I think we did what we could but congrats to Ryan.  You could say that those two (Hunter-Reay and Castroneves) dominated.  The only way we had a shot is if those two got together.  They were putting so many blocks on me that there was noting I could do. I think this is a competitive as IndyCar has ever been, I don’t care what anybody has to say.”

     As a rookie Munoz finished second last year so his fourth place today was not as impressive but still satisfying for him. "Missing some speed at the end and that hurt us,” said Munoz.  "I gave it everything I had today and came up short.  Second and a fourth is not that bad a finishing record here.”

     Making his return to IndyCar after a 14 year tour of Formula 1 and NASCAR Montoya blamed a mistake he made that cost him at the end.  "Unfortunately I made a mistake on one of the pit stops when I was resetting the fuel, I pressed the wrong button and we got a penalty for speed and then we came way back.  I was proud of the way we fought back but really did not have the speed at the end of the race to figure in the finish,” said Montoya.  "It’s good to be back here in Indy.  It was an exciting race.  It was a fun race.”

     Former NASCAR champion Kurt Busch completed his first half of the now famous Indianapolis/Charlotte "double” by brining home an Andretti Autosport entry in 6th position, the highest finishing of the seven rookies in the 500 today.

     Driving an IndyCar for the first time ever, Busch’s plan was to spend the first 2/3rds of the race getting familiar with the car and what to expect in the turbulent air from the cars around him and then make his moves the final 1/3 of the race and from transpired he worked that plan to perfection with his sixth place finish.

     "Well, I’m not halfway yet,” said Busch, who has to race 600 miles at Charlotte, North Carolina tonight to complete his "Double”.  "It was an incredible journey to sniff the lead of the Indy 500, in that lead group. "I’ll tell you though; the top five are incredible in this series at getting all they can out of their car.  Being able to keep it under control and being able to race for position is all I can ask.  I felt like I could hang on to that lead pack.  I gave it my all and I know the car was better than I was, but I’m satisfied with 6th.”

     Team owner, Michael Andretti said, "I could not be more proud of what Kurt and his team did today.  It was an uphill battle but I so proud of that effort.”

     Bourdais, Power, rookie Sage Karam and JR Hildebrand founded out the top ten.

     In 1992 Al Unser Jr. edged Scott Goodyear by 0.043 which still stands as the closet finish in 500 history but the 0.6000 by Hunter-Reay moved into second and the average speed of today’s race of 186.563 is the second fastest in 500 records coming up short of Kanaan’s 187.433 last year.  Had it not been for the rash of late race yellow today’s race could have been the fastest and that mark could have stood for a long time.

     A record 20 drivers finished on the lead lap today, the previous record was 19 set in 2009 and 2013 which somewhat acknowledges what Marco Andretti said about the competitiveness of the series.

     The 21 caution laps today matches the record for the fewest yellow flag laps since 1976 when yellow flag laps were first recorded.  Last year’s race and the 1976 also had 21 laps lost to the yellow.

     For 2014 the 500 mile races on the Verizon IndyCar series carry double points so it was a good day for Hunter-Reay as he moved out to a 40 point lead over Power as the series heads to Detroit’s Belle Island course for two races next weekend.

    Attendance figures are never announced but a lot around the Speedway and a comparison to last years photographs indicate an increase as all stands looked to hold more people than last year and that has to bode well for the Indianapolis Motor Speedway as it heads towards it running of the 100th edition of the race in 2016.