INDIANAPOLIS — Ryan Hunter-Reay peeked around Helio Castroneves, then reversed course and dipped inside for a daredevil pass and the lead in the Indianapolis 500.
Castroneves charged back to the front, winning a drag race down the frontstretch at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. And then, in a stirring wheel-to-wheel battle between a pair of bright yellow cars, Hunter-Reay seized the lead once more Sunday as the drivers hurtled across the Yard of Bricks with a single, 2.5-mile lap remaining.
With nobody in front of him, Hunter-Reay used the entire track to keep Castroneves in his rearview mirror. He nipped him at the line by less than half a car length, denying his Brazilian rival a chance at history Sunday and becoming the first American in eight years to win the Indy 500.
"The Greatest Spectacle in Racing" had lived up to its nickname.
"This race was ridiculously close and competitive," Hunter-Reay said. "Just glad I picked the right time to go."
The finish was well worth the wait — to the fans who watched 150 laps of caution-free racing, to the drivers who bided their time unsure of when they should charge to the front and to Hunter-Reay, who finally got to drink the celebratory milk in his seventh try. He beat Castroneves by just 0.060 seconds — only the 1992 race had a closer finish when Al Unser Jr. beat Scott Goodyear by 0.043 seconds.
"I'm a proud American boy, that's for sure," Hunter-Reay said in Victory Lane before he was joined by his wife and son. "I've watched this race since I was sitting in diapers 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."
He was serenaded by chants of "USA! USA!" as he made his way around the post-race celebrations. He was joined by son Ryden, born shortly after Hunter-Reay's 2012 IndyCar championship and wearing a miniature version of his father's firesuit as his parents kissed the bricks.
Castroneves, trying to become the fourth driver to win a fourth Indianapolis 500, settled for second. He needed several moments to compose himself, slumped in his car, head down and helmet on. The Brazilian said a caution with 10 laps to go broke his rhythm as a red flag came out so track workers could clean debris and repair a track wall.
"It was a great fight," he smiled. "I tell you what, I was having a great time. Unfortunately, second. It's good, but second sucks, you know what I mean?"
Marco Andretti finished third, and Carlos Munoz was fourth as Andretti Autosport had three cars in the top four, as well as the winner.
Kurt Busch, also in a Honda for Andretti, finished sixth in his first race of the day. He left immediately for a flight after the race and arrived about an hour later in North Carolina for Sunday night's Coca-Cola 600, hoping to become just the second driver to complete the 1,100-mile Double in one day. Three other drivers have made the attempt, but only Tony Stewart in 2001 pulled it off. Stewart was sixth at Indy and third at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
"All in all, I'm very pleased. I cannot believe the execution of this team," Busch said before hustling away for a helicopter ride to his waiting plane. "I tried to enjoy it. My throat's real dry because I was smiling the whole time and the fresh air was coming in my mouth."
Marco Andretti appeared to have a shot at the win, but after the final restart he never could mix it up with Hunter-Reay and Castroneves as the two leaders swapped position four times in the final five laps. So certain his son would be a contender for the victory Sunday, Michael Andretti was just as thrilled with Hunter-Reay's win.
"Ryan's just been a huge part of our team, a great guy, a friend," said Michael Andretti, who won for the third time as a team owner. "He deserves it. He deserves to have his face on that trophy. If it couldn't be Marco, he's the next guy I wanted."
A year ago, Hunter-Reay was passed for the lead with three laps remaining and went on to finish third as the race finished under caution. He was leading Sunday and had control of the race until Townsend Bell's crash brought out the red flag. Hunter-Reay figured he was a sitting duck as the leader, his chances over.
"I can't get a break," he lamented on his team radio.
But after swapping the lead with Castroneves three times, including a dramatic inside move in Turn 3, Hunter-Reay made the final and decisive pass as the two cars took the white flag.
"At the end of the day there's stupid and bravery, and I think we were right there on the edge, both of us," Castroneves said. "I'm glad we both come out in a good way. I'm sad it did not come out the way I wanted."
The race went a record 150 laps without a caution as the pace zipped along and Busch at one point had no worries at all about getting to North Carolina in time for NASCAR's longest event of the year. Then a Charlie Kimball spin brought out the first yellow, a crash by Scott Dixon led to a second caution and a risky three-wide move on the next restart caused pole-sitter Ed Carpenter and James Hinchcliffe to wreck.
Carpenter was livid, calling out Hinchcliffe for an "amateur" move.
"The moment when Hinch decided to make it three-wide was more than any of us could handle," Carpenter said. "I told him if he didn't have a concussion last week I would have punched him in the face."
Hinchcliffe, cleared to drive last weekend after suffering a concussion two weeks ago in the Grand Prix of Indianapolis, accepted responsibility.
"I was the last guy on the scene," he said. "I have to take the blame, for sure. I feel really bad for (Carpenter) because he had a great month and was doing a great job."
The race resumed and Hunter-Reay was in control until the fourth and final caution, which led IndyCar to throw a rare red flag to allow the drivers a chance to race to the finish.
"It went green the whole way, and I love that," Hunter-Reay said. "Winning it under green like that with just a fantastic finish — I hope the fans loved it because I was on the edge of my seat."