INDIANAPOLIS – JR Hildebrand was one turn away from winning the Indianapolis 500 and within sight of the checkered flag when the 23-year-old rookie made the ultimate mistake.
Leading by almost 4 seconds with a lap to go, Hildebrand skidded high into the wall on the final turn, and Dan Wheldon drove past to claim an improbable second Indy 500 win Sunday in his first race of the year.
“It’s a helpless feeling,” Hildebrand said.
Wheldon, the 2005 winner but without a full-time ride this season, appeared headed for his third straight runner-up finish when Hildebrand took the white flag needing only to make it through the last of 200 laps around the 2 1/2-mile speedway.
The first three turns went smoothly. Then Hildebrand came up on another rookie, Charlie Kimball, in the fourth turn. Instead of backing off, Hildebrand moved to the outside to make the pass and lost control, slamming the wall to a collective gasp from the crowd of 250,000.
“I caught him in the wrong piece of track,” Hildebrand said. “I got up in the marbles and that was it.”
Hildebrand’s crumpled machine slid across the finish line, still hugging the wall, in second place. While Wheldon celebrated, IndyCar officials reviewed the video to see if Wheldon passed the wrecked machine before the caution lights went on. He clearly did, and Hildebrand’s team, Panther Racing, said it would not protest.
“I just felt a lot of relief. It’s an incredible feeling,” Wheldon said. “I never gave up.”
He took the traditional swig of milk and headed off on a triumphant lap around the speedway – a lap that Hildebrand should have been taking.
Instead, the youngster stopped by the garage to get a look at his mangled car, which was hauled through Gasoline Alley instead of being wheeled into Victory Lane.
The 100th anniversary of America’s most famous race was dominated much of the day by Chip Ganassi’s top two drivers, defending champ Dario Franchitti and 2008 winner Scott Dixon.
But after a series of late pit stops, things really got interesting. Second-generation racer Graham Rahal spent some time up front. Danica Patrick claimed the lead but had to stop for fuel with nine laps to go. Belgium driver Bertrand Baguette had already gotten past Patrick, but he didn’t have enough fuel, either.
When Baguette went to the pits with three laps to go, the lead belonged to Hildebrand. All he had to do was make it to the end.
He came up one turn short.
“My disappointment is for the team,” Hildebrand said. “We should’ve won the race.”
Not that Wheldon isn’t a deserving champ. Despite plenty of success in his IndyCar career, he lost his ride at Panther Racing – where he was replaced by Hildebrand.
He sat out the first four races of the year, then picked up a one-race deal with Bryan Herta Autosport. Surely, Wheldon will be able to find a better gig now after beating Hildebrand by 2.1 seconds with an average speed of 170.265 mph.
“Dan Wheldon, he’s a great winner,” Patrick said. “And what a great story. He hasn’t run this year. That’s really cool.”
Still, it was a bitter disappointment for Patrick, who ended up 10th.
“It’s more and more depressing when I don’t win the race,” said Indy’s leading lady.
Patrick knows about misfortune leading to victory for Wheldon. His first victory came when she led late in the 2005 race, only to have to back off the throttle to save enough fuel to make it to the finish.
This time, Wheldon never led a lap until the last one, the first time that’s happened since Joe Dawson won the second Indy 500 in 1912.
It was the second time a driver lost the lead on the last lap — it happened to another rookie, Marco Andretti, in 2006 – and it’s something Hildebrand will always remember.
“Is it a move I would do again?” he said. “No.”
Rahal finished third, followed by hard-charging Tony Kanaan, who came all the way from the 22nd starting spot to contend for his first 500 win. Dixon was fifth, followed by Oriol Servia, while Franchitti lost speed in the closing laps and slipped all the way to 12th.
Helio Castroneves, hoping for a record-tying fourth Indy win, started back in the 16th spot after struggling in qualifying and did his best just to stay on the lead lap, much less challenge for the lead. That effort ended when Ryan Briscoe and Townsend Bell got together – and Castroneves ran off a piece of debris, shredding a tire. He wound up one lap down in 17th.
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