Indianapolis 500: Wheldon wins after Hildebrand crashes on final turn

May 29, 2011

Dan Wheldon’s experience over the course of 200 grueling laps, and JR Hildebrand’s lack of it entering the final turn Sunday resulted in a drama-filled finish befitting of the centennial anniversary of the Indianapolis 500.

Wheldon snatched the lead — and what appeared to be a certain triumph — from Hildebrand when the 23-year-old rookie wrecked on the front straightaway, about 1,000 feet from the checkered flag. As tens of thousands of fans looked on in stunned disbelief while Hildebrand’s mangled race car slid along the concrete retaining wall, Wheldon crossed the start-finish line at Indianapolis Motor Speedway to earn his second victory in open wheel racing’s marquee event.

“As soon as I knew it was not serious, there was a little smile on my face, I will say,” said Wheldon, who became the first winner to lead fewer than two laps. “From that point, it was just making sure I didn’t do anything silly. Then I got on the radio and started crying.”

Hildebrand, meanwhile, was left to lament an embarrassing miscue that cost him the opportunity of a lifetime.

“There were a few choice words going through my head at that moment, really fast and frequently until I hit the wall,” Hildebrand said. “They were still going through my head after [impact]. It’s a helpless feeling, driving the race car when you get in a situation like that. It’s . . . a one groove track toward the end of the race and that was certainly my mistake to have judged it otherwise.”

Despite sustaining significant damage on the right side of his car, Hildebrand crossed the finish line second, just ahead of a hard-charging Graham Rahal. Tony Kanaan finished fourth and Scott Dixon was fifth in a race that featured 23 lead changes (the fifth most in the event’s history) and, for a moment, featured fan favorite Danica Patrick all alone running up front in the closing stages.

In the winner’s circle, Wheldon wiped away tears as he congratulated by fellow competitors and sipped from the traditional jug of milk. The 32-year-old Englishman’s contract with Bryan Herta Autosport expired at midnight and he’s got no guarantee of a ride for the remainder of the season. Despite 15 previous career IndyCar wins, including a victory in the 2005 Indianapolis 500, Wheldon was unable to secure a full-time job for this season. The Panther Racing seat he occupied last season, in fact, now belongs to Hildebrand.

What everyone will remember, though, is Hildebrand’s gaffe in Turn 4.

With four laps remaining, Hildebrand inherited the lead when Betrand Baguette headed to pit lane and, two laps later, took the white flag as the leader. But as Hildebrand attempted to pass fellow rookie Charlie Kimball on the outside entering the last turn, he drifted too high and lost traction as his tires ran through the loose bits of rubber, often referred to as “marbles”, that gather outside of the racing groove.

From that moment on, Hildebrand was a passenger.

“It’s obviously a learning experience for me — that marble buildup is quite severe,” he said before adding that he momentarily thought his wrecked race car still might have had enough momentum to beat Wheldon to the line.

Before Wheldon scored a thrilling finish, Patrick appeared to be closing in on a historic one. One of four women to start the race, Patrick led Laps 179-189 and pushed the limits of her fuel window and tires before being forced to pit, 10 laps from the finish. She wound up 10th in what might have been her final Indianapolis 500; speculation swirled in recent days that she’ll make the jump to the more lucrative NASCAR Sprint Cup series as a full-time driver next season.

“You have to take that chance because it’s win or bust here,” said Patrick, who started 25th and led the race for the first time since 2005, her rookie season. “I was just saying, ‘Every time I come here and see someone else win, I hate it more each time.’”

Concerns about mayhem on “double-file” restarts, which were implemented at Indy for the first time, were unfounded, as it turned out.

But that’s not all that came as a surprise: Team Penske, which entered the race having won a record 15 times, was not a factor at all. Series points leader Will Power finished 14th after the left rear tire came unattached after a pit stop on Lap 23; three-time 500 winner Helio Castroneves battled back from falling a lap down to finish 17th; and Ryan Briscoe got taken out in an accident with 43 laps remaining.

The last time Penske competed here and did not put a single car in the top 10 was 1992.

“With a Cinderella story, we took on the might of Roger Penske’s organization and Chip Ganassis’s,” Wheldon said. “I don’t think I saw a Penske in front of me all of the race.”

Indeed, it was the day of the underdog — with an unexpected plot twist at the end.

“I’m smart enough as a rookie not to expect that I’m going to come to the Indianapolis 500 my first year and be in a position to win the race,” Hildebrand said. “As it turned out, we most certainly were. We were in a position to win the race.”

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