Tuesday, May 27, 2014

2014 Indy 500 added to list of classics, close finishes

If you missed Sunday’s 98th running of the Indianapolis 500, you missed out.

No, really.

The greatest spectacle in racing was filled with strategy, drama, tension and excitement. Oh yeah, and the second-closest finish in Indy 500 history. Just 0.0600 seconds separated first and second place.

It was the first Indy 500 win for Ryan Hunter-Reay, 33, the IndyCar Series Champion in 2012. He drove from 19th to first, something that hasn’t been done since 1954.

The brickyard has had its share of photo finishes over the years. Take 1982, when Rick Mears made a move on the last lap but couldn’t get past winner Gordon Johncock in time. Mears went on to win a record-tying four Indy 500s in his career.

That race was the closest finish until a decade later, when Al Unser Jr. edged out Scott Goodyear by 0.043 seconds in 1992 for what still remains as the smallest margin of victory ever at the historic race.

With Sunday’s finish, it was the first time an American won since 2006, when Sam Hornish Jr. passed then-rookie Marco Andretti just before the yard of bricks as the checkered flags were waved. That’s now bumped to No. 3 on the list of close finishes at the Indy 500, with a .0635 margin.

Green-flag finish this year
What was particularly exciting about this year’s finish was that it was green-flag, full-speed racing. It might not seem significant, but this is a race that has ended under caution the past four years, a disappointing sight for fans, as drivers reduce speeds and are not allowed to pass under caution conditions.

Sunday, the yellow flag didn’t come out until well over halfway through the race, which is a bit unusual. It was out again with less than 10 laps to go for a crash and debris. But the powers that be quickly threw the red flag, stopping the race until the track was clear, in hopes of getting that green-flag, high-excitement finish.

It turned out to be a great move.

I was on the edge of my couch, face in my hands, and then standing when the field went for the final restart and rattled off the last few laps.

Hunter-Reay led the field, followed by Helio Castroneves and then Hunter-Reay’s teammate, Marco Andretti. Hunter-Reay and Castroneves traded the lead before the eventual winner made a pass that nearly had him down on the infield grass. Castroneves tried to pass on the main straightaway before the checkered flew, but his fourth Indy 500 victory, to put him in elite company, wasn’t meant to be.

For Marco and his third-place result, it was another heartbreak-ending as his family’s Andretti Curse at the Indy 500 showed it was still alive and well. His grandfather, Mario, won 45 years ago.

That’s the lone victory for any Andretti at the 500, and the family has had terrible luck at the speedway over the years.

Marco’s father, Michael, never won the race as a driver, though he’s led the most laps of drivers who have never won the event. But he’s won it three times now as a team owner, which has to be a nice consolation.

Actually, I wouldn’t have wanted to be in Michael’s shoes Sunday.

Marco led during the race, had a good car and was consistently in the hunt for the win.

But Michael is the team owner for Marco and Hunter-Reay, and he’s also the race strategist for Hunter-Reay.

Either way, he was in a good situation with those two, of the five, cars he had in the race.

Still, it had to be a tough call, deep down. His focus during the race is Hunter-Reay, but then there’s his son, trying to do something that Michael was never able to accomplish.

Instant classic
ESPN Classic usually runs a string of classic Indy 500s in the week leading up to the race each year. It’s really fun to watch those, too. It’s like a time capsule to see how the race, the cars and even the television broadcasts have changed, and I love it.

With the amazing finish we saw this year, I certainly hope the 2014 Indy 500 gets added to that classic list.

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