He used a series of daredevil moves to deny Helio Castroneves a chance at history on Sunday and became the first American since 2006 to win "The Greatest Spectacle in Racing." He passed Castroneves at the Yard of Bricks as the two bright yellow cars raced wheel-to-wheel under the white flag in a thrilling final lap.
As Hunter-Reay surged ahead down the backstretch, Castroneves took one final look coming out of Turn 4, but couldn't pull off the pass and lost by 0.060 seconds. Only the 1992 race had a closer finish when Al Unser Jr. beat Scott Goodyear by 0.043 seconds.
"I'm a proud American boy, that's for sure," Hunter-Reay said in Victory Lane before he was joined by his wife and son. "I've watched this race since I was sitting in diapers on the floor in front of the TV. My son did it today. He watched me here. I'm thrilled. This is American history, this race, this is American tradition."
Ryden, born shortly after Hunter-Reay's 2012 IndyCar championship, celebrated the traditional kissing of the bricks with his family while wearing a miniature version of his father's fire suit.
Castroneves, trying to become the fourth driver to win a record fourth Indianapolis 500, settled for second. He was devastated by the defeat and needed several moments to compose himself, slumped in his car, head down and helmet on, before he was ready to speak. The Brazilian said a caution with 10 laps to go that caused a red flag so track workers could clean up debris and make repairs to the track wall broke his rhythm.
"It was a great fight," he smiled. "I tell you what, I was having a great time. Unfortunately second. It's good, but second sucks, you know what I mean?"
Marco Andretti finished third and Carlos Munoz was fourth as Andretti Autosport had three cars in the top four, as well as the winner.
Kurt Busch, also in a Honda for Andretti, was sixth in his first race of the day. His attempt at completing the 1,100-mile "Double" ended Sunday night after his car blew an engine late in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Coca-Cola 600 in Charlotte, N.C. Three other drivers have made the attempt, but only Tony Stewart in 2001 has pulled it off. Stewart was sixth at Indy and third at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
The frenetic schedule didn't faze Busch. Before his engine woes, he even hinted it might not be his only shot at the back-to-back races.
"I do like it enough to do it again," he said after landing in North Carolina.
Marco Andretti appeared to have a shot at the win, but after the final restart he never could mix it up with Hunter-Reay and Castroneves as the two leaders swapped position four times in the final five laps. So certain his son would be a contender for the victory Sunday, Michael Andretti was just as thrilled with Hunter-Reay's win.
"Ryan's just been a huge part of our team, a great guy, a friend," said Michael Andretti, who won for the third time as a team owner. "To have him get a win here is awesome, he deserves it, he deserves to have his face on that trophy. If it couldn't be Marco, he's the next guy I wanted."
A year ago, Hunter-Reay was passed for the lead with three laps remaining and went on to finish third as the race finished under caution. He was leading Sunday and had control of the race until Townsend Bell's crash brought out the red flag. Hunter-Reay figured his chances were over.
"I can't get a break," he lamented on his team radio.
But after swapping the lead with Castroneves three times, including a dramatic inside move in Turn 3, Hunter-Reay made the final and decisive pass as the two cars took the white flag.
"At the end of the day there's stupid and bravery, and I think we were right there on the edge, both of us," Castroneves said. "I'm glad we both come out in a good way. I'm sad it did not come out the way I wanted."
He added: "For several years the series (had) a foreigner up front. It's great to see American drivers succeed."
The race went a record 150 laps without a caution as the pace zipped along and Busch at one point had no worries at all about getting to North Carolina in time for NASCAR's longest event of the year. Then a Charlie Kimball spin brought out the first yellow, a crash by Scott Dixon led to a second caution and a risky three-wide move on the next restart caused pole-sitter Ed Carpenter and James Hinchcliffe to wreck.
Carpenter was livid, calling out Hinchcliffe for an "amateur" move.
"The moment when Hinch decided to make it three-wide was more than any of us could handle," Carpenter said. "Let's just say it was good thing he already had a concussion last week."
Hinchcliffe, cleared to drive last weekend after suffering a concussion two weeks ago in the Grand Prix of Indianapolis, took the blame.
"I was the last guy on the scene," he said. "I have to take the blame, for sure. I feel really bad for (Carpenter) because he had a great month and was doing a great job."
The race resumed and Hunter-Reay was in control until the fourth and final caution, which led IndyCar to throw a rare red flag to allow the drivers a chance to race to the finish.
"It went green the whole way and I love that," Hunter-Reay said. "Winning it under green like that with just a fantastic finish -- I hope the fans loved it because I was on the edge of my seat."
Ryan Hunter-Reay Wins Indianapolis 500
Ryan Hunter-Reay held off Helio Castroneves to become the first American to win the Indianapolis 500 since 2006.
Ryan Hunter-Reay's Sunday Conversation
Ryan Hunter-Reay discusses winning the Indianapolis 500 and how much it meant to him.