Indy 500: Rahal Letterman Racing race report

RYAN HUNTER-REAY EARNS TOP ROOKIE HONORS WITH A SIXTH-PLACE FINISH AT THE INDIANAPOLIS 500 INDIANAPOLIS - While the driver is the one that climbs behind the wheel for 200 laps at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway - auto racing is now and has...

RYAN HUNTER-REAY EARNS TOP ROOKIE HONORS WITH A SIXTH-PLACE FINISH AT THE INDIANAPOLIS 500

INDIANAPOLIS - While the driver is the one that climbs behind the wheel for 200 laps at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway - auto racing is now and has always been a team sport.

Never was that more evident than in Sunday's Indianapolis 500 as Rahal Letterman Racing and driver Ryan Hunter-Reay (#17 Ethanol Dallara/Honda/Firestone) teamed to post a season-best sixth-place finish and earn the mantle of the top-finishing rookie of the race with a thrilling drive in the IndyCar Series' marquee event.

Whether it was Hunter-Reay passing cars on the track at 220 mph or the pit crew gaining spots at 50 mph, the #17 Ethanol machine marched steadily forward all day, moving from 20th on the grid to score a sixth-place finish. Unfortunately, the team's other rookie Alex Lloyd (#16 WiiFit Dallara/Honda/Firestone) fell upon misfortune in his first Indy 500, ending his day in 25th after a crash with 49 laps to go.

"This is a great finish for us," grinned Hunter-Reay. "This year, I think the Indy 500 Rookie-of-the-Year battle meant a lot more than it has in a while because the field was so strong with so many former Champ Car drivers coming over. This time last year I was walking the paddock in other series looking for a ride and today here I am in a press conference for being the top rookie at Indy. Wow."

Hunter-Reay, who won the Bombardier Rookie-of-the-Year award last year in the IndyCar Series, held rookie status at Indy since he did not join RLR until after the Indy 500 had taken place a year ago. He made the most of his first trip, battling tooth-and-nail with a number of foes today in moving up 14 spots.

The last of those spots would be the one that earned him top rookie honors as he streaked past fellow first-year pilot Hideki Mutoh with six laps to go to snare sixth. The pass was a study in tenacity as Hunter-Reay saw two good opportunities blunted by Mutoh blocks in the laps before the pass, but the Floridian dug deep and made the move in Turn One on Lap 194.

"Hideki was blocking me and I can't tell you how angry I was," recalled Hunter-Reay. "But I was methodical and set him up, my spotters did a great job giving me information and we got the job done. There was no way I was going to finish this race with that kid in front of me! The Ethanol team did a fantastic job today. Each time I came in I seemed to get a spot or two, then we were able to get a couple on the track on each stint. It went right according to plan."

Things were not as easy for Lloyd, who was making his very first IndyCar Series start today after a unique partnership between Rahal Letterman and Chip Ganassi provided the opportunity for last year's Firestone Indy Lights champion. He started 19th and moved up three spots early on, before handling woes started to affect the car. A lengthy stop to check the car after a wall brush set the team back to 22nd, but Lloyd soldiered on admirably before a Turn Four crash ended his day.

"We were really struggling all day with the car, but that's how it is in Indianapolis sometimes," Lloyd said. "It's a shame because we'd had a good car for most of the month, but something just wasn't right today. We whitewalled the car during our second stint, but it looked OK after we checked it out. But something must have been wrong because when I came out of Turn Four later in the race, the car just stopped turning and I went straight into the wall."

Hunter-Reay finished just 6.9 seconds behind the winning car of Scott Dixon after 500 miles, matching the best finish of his IndyCar Series career. He vaulted six spots to 11th in the series' point standings with today's result and is just 25 points out of a berth in the top five.

There is even more reason for optimism on the horizon as the IndyCar Series visits the venerable Milwaukee Mile next Sunday for the ABC Supply/A.J. Foyt 225. Hunter-Reay earned one of his two career victories in dominating fashion on the mile back in 2004, leading all 250 laps in a Champ Car victory. The race takes place at 4 p.m. Eastern Time next weekend and can be seen live on ABC.

-credit: rhr

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Series IndyCar
Drivers Scott Dixon , Ryan Hunter-Reay , Chip Ganassi , Hideki Mutoh , A.J. Foyt