Hunter-Reay scores a popular win

— -- INDIANAPOLIS -- For an American institution, on an American holiday, there was an American revival Sunday.

"I'm a proud American boy, that's for sure," said Ryan Hunter-Reay, detonating a roar from the grandstands of Indianapolis Motor Speedway, moments after he won the 98th Indy 500.

"This is American history, this race," he said. "This is American tradition."

Even Helio Castroneves, the Brazlian who until Sunday had won this race more times -- three -- than all American drivers combined since 2001, gathered his emotions after dueling Hunter-Reay to the finish and said, "It's great to see an American driver win."

Time was, of course, when an American winner was a foregone conclusion here. But since Emerson Fittipaldi broke through in 1989, the imported personalities have dominated.

Hunter-Reay, of Fort Lauderdale, Florida, became the first American driver to win here since Sam Hornish Jr. in 2006, only the third since 1998, and just the sixth in the last 20 years. One reason for the American drought has been the channeling of talented American youth toward NASCAR -- Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart being the first great losses of Indy to stock car racing. Another is that for decades now, European and Latin American drivers have come here with deeper, stronger training in open-wheel racing.

Hunter-Reay, 33, was focused from toddlerhood on Indy.

"I watched this race since I was in diapers sitting on the floor in front of the TV," he said. "When I was a kid I looked up to the Andrettis, Foyt, the Unsers, Mears ... This was the top. Right here."

Singular among his heroes was Michael Andretti, now the car owner who sent him to Sunday's win.

"I came up in karting, emulating these guys, right when Michael was in his prime," Hunter-Reay said.

For Andretti, running his five-car team from the pits, the finish was "a weird feeling," he said. His son Marco was in the hunt in the late laps, and finished third.

In all, Andretti Autosport put four drivers in the top six, including NASCAR regular Kurt Busch, who finished sixth before heading off to Charlotte to run in the Coca-Cola 600.

Andretti had to strike a delicate emotional balance with Marco, who "was very upset" afterward, Michael said. "I don't blame him."

Andretti realized toward the end that Hunter-Reay had the stronger car. "It's a weird feeling: I'm secretly watching [Marco], saying, 'Come on, get up there, and if you can pass him, do it.'"

But "there were a few times Marco tried to get up there, and I saw his car didn't have the speed ... I knew at that point if we were going to win, it would most likely be with Ryan."

Castroneves emerged as Hunter-Reay's strongest challenger in the final five laps, as they exchanged the lead, even driving to the edge of the infield grass. But Hunter-Reay took the lead as they approached the white flag and held on through the final lap.

Even with all of IndyCar's technical adjustments in recent years, to induce more passing and a better show, it was clear soon after the halfway point that Hunter-Reay had a car strong enough to break out of the crapshoot nature of recent finishes here.

And by the way, he lost one of those last year, finishing third to Brazilian Tony Kanaan in the late scramble.

Gone are the days of Indy runaways, because the aerodynamic rules allow cars to draft up on each other and pass so easily. So there would be no breakaway, Hunter-Reay understood early on.

"We had like a four-second lead at one point, and they just ate it right up," he said. "So, no, it wasn't anything where I was going to be pulling away.

"But I knew that if I got into a fight with somebody that I had the upper hand for sure."

After starting 19th but moving up quickly, "the car was doing everything I needed it to do, to put it right where I needed to, to win the race," Hunter-Reay said.

"And I'm glad we did. Because I'd be so down about losing with that car."

He showed that upper hand for keeps to Castroneves at the white flag but still was concerned, fearing a recurrence of the nightmare the Andretti team had suffered in 2006. That was an all-American shootout between Hornish and Marco, and Hornish drafted up and pulled a slingshot pass at the checkered flag.

"On the last lap I was worried that Helio would be able to draft up and pass me, just like Hornish did to Marco in 2006," Hunter-Reay said. "That was playing on my mind going down the backstretch, for sure."

In the pits, "I thought, 'He's still gonna pull it off, and he did," Andretti said. "He drove a perfect lap."

Still, "I had to be aggressive," Hunter-Reay said. "I had to come off Turn 4 low, so that Helio couldn't draft up as well. I think that was the difference. Had I come off high, he'd have been right in my slipstream, and probably would have gotten by."

"As expected, this race was ridiculously close," Hunter-Reay said. "I'm just glad I picked the right time to go."