Friday, May 27, 2016

The closest finishes in Indy 500 history, part 1

A race to the finish line. Whether it's a quick sprint between runners or a lengthy 500 miles in an IndyCar, there are bound to be some close finishes along the way. That's true in the case of a few of the Indianapolis 500s as well.

Four of them stand out in my mind: 1982, 1992, 2006, 2014. Technically, they're four of the closest Indy 500s in history, so there's a reason why their stories are so compelling. I'll take a look at the first pair, 1982 and 1992, in part one.


Gordon Johncock's winning car in 1982.
At the time, this was the closest finish in the race's storied history. The famous call from broadcaster Jim McKay: "He's making a move. ... No! No! Not quite. Gordon Johncock has won the Indianapolis 500! He won it by less than a car length!"

0.16 seconds, to be exact.

It was Johncock's day as he took the checkered for his second Indy 500 victory. The other came in 1973. Polesitter Rick Mears did his best to chase him down, making for an exciting final few laps. With just four laps to go, the gap was 2.9 seconds. He was clearly closing in.

As they came to the straightaway on the final lap, Mears got close enough to Johncock that he was right on top of him. He veered out toward the inside to try and make a pass, but he was too late. Johncock crossed the yard of bricks before Mears could complete the pass.

Only the 0.16 second-margin stood between Mears and his second Indy 500 win. It's amazing, too, because if he would have pulled that win off, he could likely be the only driver to ever win the race five times. That's playing the "what if?" game though.

Mears had his days in victory lane - four times total - in 1978, 1984, 1988 and 1991.

The race started out wth plenty of tense moments and carnage that made the 1982 race memorable as well. Just as the field came to take the green flag to start the race, front-row starter Kevin Cogan's car seemed to zig zag right and then a hard left, taking Mario Andretti's car with him to the inside wall. The crash had a ripple affect through the field and brought out the red flag.

"How in the world could this have happened?!" was McKay's call after the crash. If you watch the video, it really was an odd looking crash. I'm not sure if the cause of the crash was ever clearly determined. Mario and A.J. Foyt both blamed Cogan for the incident, and were pretty outspoken about it. Foyt's car was damaged in the crash, so he set to work on it in pit lane.

Cogan claimed something broke on the car. He never won an Indy 500, and his reputation after the 1982 race was somewhat damaged.

Al Unser Jr.'s winning car in 1992.
Had it not been for another strike of the Andretti Curse late in the race, the closest finish ever might have never happened.

Michael Andretti was trying desperately to win his first Indy 500 and the second for the Andretti name, since dad Mario only won once in 1969. Michael started the race on the front row in the third position. It was an abnormally cold May day, which likely was a factor when pole sitter Roberto Guerrero tried to warm up his tires on the pace lap and then spun out. His day was over before the drop of the green flag.

That left the door open for Michael, who dominated the race that afternoon. He led 160 laps and it looked like he'd finally get that Indy victory. Then with 11 laps to go, he slowed on the track with some kind of fuel pressure malfunction. His day was over.

Meanwhile, that put Al Unser Jr. and Scott Goodyear into the front of the field with the caution out for Michael. It would suddenly be a race of the final seven laps, after the restart. The difference between first and second place could often be a huge gap. This time, Goodyear - who started the day from the back row in spot No. 33 - was chasing Little Al just behind him.

It was sure to make for an exciting finish. I just don't think anyone realized how close, how historic and how exciting it would be. Goodyear got a good draft on Unser Jr. coming out of turn four on the final lap. He was right behind Little Al on the main straight, he moved back and forth slightly behind. Then Goodyear came out toward the inside to make a move and try to pass for the lead at the last second, pretty similar to the Johncock-Mears situation a decade earlier.

Goodyear hadn't led a lap in that race, but he was trying to get the lead on the only lap that mattered. He couldn't get it done. Unser Jr. won by a nose - literally. The margin of victory, or defeat in Goodyear's case, was all of 0.043 seconds. It was, and remains, the closest finish in Indy 500 history.

For Unser Jr., the win continued the dynasty of his family. His dad Al Unser Sr. had already won the race four times; his uncle Bobby drank the milk three times. '92 was Little Al's 10th Indy 500, and he entered with zero Indy victories to his name. During the victory lane celebration, he said, "You just don't know what Indy means..."

It turned out to be the first of two Indy 500 wins for Little Al. He won again in 1994.

For Goodyear, it was as close as he'd come to victory lane for the famous race. He also finished second twice. Nothing could compare to this epic finish though. He ran the Indy 500 11 times and is on the long list of drivers who have never won. Had he won in 1992, he would have been the first driver to come from the last starting spot on the grid to win the race.

Related: The closest finishes in Indy 500 history, part 2

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