INDIANAPOLIS — Ryan Hunter-Reay wasn't able to predict victory Sunday in the 98th Indianapolis 500 until he lifted his left arm into the air as he crossed the yard of bricks a few feet ahead of Helio Castroneves.
With just 0.0600 seconds separating the two cars, the margin was the second-closest in Indy 500 history, ending a stirring six-lap shootout in which Hunter-Reay and Castroneves traded the lead four times.
"This is what I've dreamed of since I was a little kid," Hunter-Reay said. "This is everything I've worked for. The (IndyCar) championship (in 2012) is right next to this, and this Is probably a little bit ahead of that. It's amazing."
The victory also pushed an American racer into the limelight for the first time since Sam Hornish Jr. won in 2006, a boon for a race trying to hold its audience and a fact Hunter-Reay quickly seized upon.
"I was always trying to get here," he said. "To even have a shot at it is unbelievable. When you look at the NASCAR side of racing, it's all Americans. Open-wheel is a very international sport. The best talent from around the world is here doing battle in every type of discipline — ovals, street circuits, road courses, short ovals. It's the only championship in the world like that. It's a true drivers' championship."
More signifIcantly, perhaps, was the notion of redemption for Hunter-Reay. Last year he was passed for the lead by Tony Kanaan with three laps remaining and finished third. He graciously accepted defeat, then acknowledged that, given a capable car and similar situation, he could win the Indy 500.
But it wasn't that simple or predictable. Perhaps influenced by criticism of Tony Kanaan's win under caution last year, race officials stopped the race with a discretionary red flag after Townsend Bell crashed on Lap 191, leaving debris strewn around the exit of Turn 2. The decision set up the six-lap duel between Hunter-Reay and Castroneves at the end of the race.
While Hunter-Reay sat in his quiet car during the red flag, team owner Michael Andretti gave him a pep talk.
"Michael said, 'You have the best car. You're the best driver out there. Just go win it,'" Hunter-Reay said. "The engineer said the same thing. 'You've got the tools. Let's go make it happen.'"
It's not the first time IndyCar officials have used red flags at their discretion to prevent a race from ending under caution. At the 2012 season finale in Fontana, Calif., race director Beaux Barfield decided to red-flag the race with 10 laps remaining to allow a green-flag finish. Coincidentally, Hunter-Reay's IndyCar championship that year was briefly put on hold by that red flag.
This time, Hunter-Reay was leading when the red flag waved, and -- despite the shuffling among Hunter-Reay and Castroneves once the race resumed — Hunter-Reay still held the lead six laps later.
"Second doesn't really count," Hunter-Reay said. "In my mind, I was going for it. I was going to do anything I could to win this race."
The red-flag decision led to another significant statistic: At 186.563 mph -- a figure attained because the red-flag portion didn't count in the race time -- the race was the second-fastest in Indy 500 history, topped only by last year's 187.433 mph average speed.
The winning move most likely was Hunter-Reay's banzai dive into Turn 3 that surprised Castroneves and gave Hunter-Reay the lead. Castroneves regained the lead two laps later, with an outside pass heading into Turn 1, but Hunter-Reay got the lead back for the final time with a similar move on Lap 199.
But it was Hunter-Reay's grass-cutting, dust spewing inside pass a few laps earlier that spoiled Castroneves' rhythm.
"That was the move of the race," said Michael Andretti, Hunter-Reay's team owner, who never won the race in 16 years as a driver but picked up his third Indy 500 as an owner. "I think that caught Helio completely off guard and threw off his plan for the Rest of the race. I think that was the move that did it."
Castroneves, who missed a shot at a record-tying fourth Indy 500 victory, found a runner-up finish difficult to accept.
"I tried, man," he said. "Trust me, I really tried. we tried to find answers, but you can''t question destiny. Today I did everything -- my team did everything -- we could to win this race. We were so close to winning four."
Instead, it was Hunter-Reay winning Indy for the first time and — with his 2012 IndyCar championship in tow — establishing himself as one of the sport's elite racers.
"In the end, this race was ridiculously close and competitive," Hunter-Reay said. "I'm just glad I picked the right time to go."