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INDIANAPOLIS -- How thin is the IndyCar racing line between smart and stupid?
Helio Castroneves knows. He pushed for Indy 500 history, pushed harder, in truth, than wisdom demanded on a sun-kissed Sunday afternoon at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the most unforgiving of racing facilities.
The problem -- Ryan Hunter-Reay pushed harder.
And then won.
“I was trying to do stuff that normally at 220 mph you don't do,” Castroneves said.
A pause. A bitter-sweet smile.
"At the end of the day there's stupid and bravery, and I think we were right there on the edge, both of us. I'm glad we both come out in a good way. I'm sad it did not come out the way I wanted.
“It was a great show. I had a great time. I did everything I could to stop him. We ran lines out there we never use.”
Hunter-Reay gave him no choice. He was driven by last year's third-place finish (passed with three laps left), boosted by his 2012 IndyCar driving title. He was 33 years old, a former driving vagabond steeled by that lack of early opportunity and ready when opportunity arrived in a blaze of rushing yellow race car.
“I couldn't have done it without a greater group of people around me,” he said.
That group consisted of one of open wheel racing's top teams – Andretti Autosport.
“In this series you have to be a very diverse driver,” team owner Michael Andretti said. “Ryan was good at all the tracks. That's one of the reasons why we went after him.”
On a day when the Indy 500 got its first American winner since 2006, Castroneves agonized while Hunter-Reay celebrated victory with 1-year-old son Ryden, both in matching yellow racing outfits atop the Speedway bricks.
It was Father's Day come early.
“I can't wait to watch the video with him,” Hunter-Reay said. “The photos will go on the wall in our house forever. I'll share it with him.”
But not, he hopes, his profession.
“I don't know if I want him to be a race driver. Maybe we'll get him a set of golf clubs.”
Perhaps, but for now, what goes around, comes around.
“I've watched this race since I was in diapers sitting on the floor in front of the TV,” Hunter-Reay said. “Now my son did it. He watched me here. I'm thrilled.”
Thrill produced on-the-edge chills in a race that featured 34 lead changes and near-record speed.
“Mentally it was so draining,” Hunter-Reay said. “I came too close to mistakes, but that's where you have to run it. If I had a shot, I had to take it.”
His shot came with two laps left. He and Castroneves had each traded the lead twice and time was running out. So, Castroneves in front, Hunter-Reay faked high then swerved low, so fast it seemed a blur, so low he clipped grass.
“When Helio got by me (with four laps left), I thought that was it.
“At that moment, you're going mostly with instinct. You go for it. At Indy, second doesn't count. In my head I would make it happen or maybe get into the wall. You have to be in the gray. I'd do anything I could to win this race.
“It's definitely pretty nuts when you consider what all goes into it. I knew it was going to be hard. I know we made the right move at the right time.”
Castroneves raced for four-win glory, as he has every year since 2009, the last time he, and Team Penske owner Roger Penske, won at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
But never has he come so agonizingly close. The only Indy 500 race that was closer that this 0.6000-second finish came in 1992, when Al Unser Jr. edged Scott Goodyear by 0.043 seconds. A win would have tied him with A.J. Foyt, Rick Mears and Al Unser Sr. for most Indy 500 victories.
“It's frustrating to be so close to something only a few guys have done,” Castroneves said. “I did everything I could. We put ourselves in a great position to win. We did exactly what we needed to do to make it happen.”
Instead, Hunter-Reay made it happen.
“When we kissing the bricks, that's when it sank in and I got the feeling tears were starting to come. You work so long for it. Here we are and I can't believe it. Kissing the bricks, seeing that trophy, drinking the milk, helps make it a reality.”
It's as real as the line between smart and stupid.