A red flag helped Ryan Hunter-Reay win the Indy 500 on Sunday. He celebrated afterward with a different flag.
A red flag helped Ryan Hunter-Reay win the Indy 500 on Sunday. He celebrated afterward with a different flag. (Chris Graythen / Getty Images)

There's good cause to credit a red flag for Ryan Hunter-Reay's riveting win over Helio Castroneves in the Indianapolis 500, the second-closest finish in history.

With 10 laps left in Sunday's race, and Hunter-Reay leading over Castroneves, Townsend Bell crashed in Turn 2 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, with debris from his car showering the track.


Typically the remaining cars would drive slowly around the 2.5-mile track under a yellow caution period as crews cleaned up the debris and, in this case, repaired the wall where Bell made impact.

But it's possible the cleanup wouldn't have been finished within the remaining laps and the more than 200,000 spectators at Indy -- and millions more watching on television at home -- would have seen Hunter-Reay's car crawl across the finish line under yellow.

That's what happened last year. Tony Kanaan was leading when another driver crashed with three laps left. The race, which had featured a record number of lead changes up to that point, ended under caution.

An uproar ensued, with many fans frustrated that Kanaan and the others weren't able to race to the checkered flag at full speed, in Indy's case at more than 200 mph.

NASCAR stock car racing already has addressed that problem, implementing a "green-white-checkered" two-lap overtime finish if the scheduled laps end under caution.

No doubt mindful of all that, IndyCar officials Sunday took the unusual step of throwing the red flag after Bell's crash -- stopping the race -- so that the drivers would resume racing under green to the end.

That led to the wild finish, with Hunter-Reay and Castroneves swapping the lead over the final six laps until Hunter-Reay prevailed for his first Indy 500 win by a scant 0.060 of a second over Castroneves.

For Hunter-Reay's team owner, Michael Andretti, it "was a tough" call to endure. After all, Hunter-Reay was leading when Bell crashed and Andretti would have been perfectly happy to have Hunter-Reay win the legendary race at slow speed under a yellow flag.

But Andretti said of the red flag: "I understand why they did it. It is all about the fans still."