INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Helio Castroneves graciously accepted congratulations from Rick Mears for a tremendous run in the Indianapolis 500, a second-place finish in the second-closest race in history.
It wasn't the congratulations Castroneves wanted to hear.
The Brazilian driver was trying to join Mears in the elite club of four-time winners on Sunday. But he was passed by Ryan Hunter-Reay with a lap remaining during a frantic finish, and came up just short as he tried to regain the lead on the race to the checkered flag.
"Rick was very happy on the radio," Castroneves said afterward. "For me, that's worth a lot."
Mears, who served as Castroneves' spotter in Turn 3, was the last driver to win a fourth Indy 500, claiming victory in 1991. A.J. Foyt and Al Unser also won the race four times.
"Right now at this point, I feel like the team, myself, the entire group is eager to make it happen, and win another as soon as possible," Castroneves said. "And that's just a testament to how great the series is, because the cars are so close."
Castroneves was gracious in defeat, congratulating Hunter-Reay on his first victory and speaking candidly about the dramatic last few laps. But it was only after he had parked his car, slumped in his seat with his helmet still on and spent several minutes searching for composure.
He wound up leading 38 laps. The margin of defeat was 0.06 seconds.
"I just think this guy has done such a great job driving for us," team owner Roger Penske said.
Hunter-Reay finished third a year ago, getting passed with three laps remaining by eventual winner Tony Kanaan. So if there was anybody who could commiserate about coming oh-so-close, it was the guy who punched his fist in the air as the two of them crossed the Yard of Bricks.
"We all raced each other clean but really hard," Hunter-Reay said. "I think that was a fantastic race. I hope the fans loved it because I was on the edge of my seat that's for sure."
The race was thrown into chaos when Townsend Bell wrecked with 10 laps to go. The red flag was thrown and the cars were forced to park on pit road as workers cleared debris off the track, giving drivers several minutes to ponder the final few laps.
"I was thinking, 'What am I going to do? Where am I going to pass?'" Castroneves said.
When the race resumed with six laps to go, Hunter-Reay and Castroneves waged one of the most memorable battles in the 500's 98-year history. Castroneves pulled ahead, and Hunter-Reay nearly touched the infield grass as he veered low entering Turn 3 and regained the lead with three laps to go.
Castroneves overtook him again on the next lap, swinging around the outside on the front stretch, and then kept his car glued to the bottom of the track in a defensive position.
Hunter-Reay moved back to the outside as they crossed the finish line and the white flag flew, the fourth time they had swapped the lead in the final five laps.
It turned out to be the winning move in a race that came down to the wire.
"When you have two experienced drivers battling, it's a great show. I thought it was awesome," Castroneves said with a grin. "It hurts a little bit more than the others because it's such a big race and you want to win as much as anybody, but at the end of the day, I'm very happy with the performance of the team."