INDIANAPOLIS -- In six years of competing in Indy-car races, Arie Luyendyk never had been to victory lane. Only once, in 1988, had he been a runner-up. Only twice had he finished as high as third. In the big races -- Indianapolis, the Michigan 500 and the Pocono 500 -- the highest he finished was fourth.

He hadn't attracted a sponsor in Europe to race Formula One, so he went to Phoenix, where sponsorship money was available even if victories weren't. He's handsome, affable and introspective, but he might be the last man in the world you'd expect to win the Indianapolis 500.

Luyendyk's life took a turn when car owner Doug Shierson took a liking and signed him. Domino's Pizza became his sponsor and, with Shierson's influence, Luyendyk got one of the biggest breaks a driver can get these days -- a Chevy engine. Who gets what engine is a complicated, competitive and often political process that's too long to go into here. Let's just say Luyendyk was thankful.

"I had 70 times or so to try to win something," he said Sunday after accomplishing that feat at the Indianapolis 500. "When I signed with Doug, I didn't know he was going to get a Chevy engine. Once I found out, I thought, 'If you're not going to win races this way, you better look to do something else.' Sometimes, you just have to be patient and wait for the right equipment. I had some good years {in Formula Three and Super Vee} but I didn't have the right equipment."

With his new Lola-Chevy, Luyendyk surprised many observers here this year by qualifying third (at 223.004 mph) behind the Roger Penske superstars, Emerson Fittipaldi and Rick Mears. In fact, in the first three rows, there were six former Indianapolis champions, plus probable champions-to-be Michael Andretti and Al Unser Jr., who finished fourth and second, respectively, last year.

Thus, it wasn't surprising to hear Luyendyk say before the race, "It's a very emotional thing for me to be on Row 1."

So imagine how he felt 100 laps into the race when he was running fourth. Or after 168 laps, when he was preparing to blow past Bobby Rahal into the lead. Or after 200 laps, when he was shocked to see the checkered flag, thinking he had one more lap to go.

It was about 27 laps from the finish, after a final pit stop, when the 36-year-old Dutchman knew it was his race to win -- especially since Rahal, Fittipaldi and Unser Jr. all were having right rear tire problems due to blistering.

"I knew if nothing funny happens, like a car spinning out in front of us, we'd be okay," Luyendyk said.

Something funny almost did happen. Fittipaldi, who won last year's race after a light wheel tap in the final two laps with Unser Jr., came real close to bumping Luyendyk's car. There were gasps from the crowd, and probably one that couldn't be heard from Luyendyk.

"I thought, 'Now I know how you won the race last year, you dog,' " said Luyendyk, laughing but not joking. "I moved over to the right to tell him to watch it, because we've got more races to go this year."

One wonders why Luyendyk would bother racing any more this year. When all the gold is counted, he stands to make approximately $1 million from this victory.

His career has some similarities to that of Pat Cash, who'd never won anything major in his life before the 1987 Wimbledon. A better analogy, as Rahal pointed out is Derrike Cope, who never won a stock car race until winning the Daytona 500 this year. "Winning it changes your whole life," Rahal said. "It was the only race Derrike ever won, but it was the most important one."

Even though he left Europe because he couldn't get a sponsor for even Formula Two, Luyendyk has not been a failure. His overall earnings entering this season were $2.12 million, placing him 17th all-time.

Unlike the Andrettis and the Unsers, aggressive, take-it-soon-as-you-can drivers, Luyendyk prefers a patient approach. He said he'd rather do everything "kind of soft . . . be soft with the car. You have to be very smooth. If you're patient and conservative, you'll build it up."

Mario Andretti wouldn't give a dime for that philosophy, and he is perhaps the greatest driver of all time and Luyendyk was virtually unheard of outside his hometown of Sommelsdyk, Holland, until yesterday.

Because Luyendyk was running, the race was televised live in Holland, he said. Asked if he would be "the new Cruyff" as in former World Cup and Washington Diplomats soccer star Johann Cruyff, Luyendyk blushed and said: "The country will be paying a lot of attention to this. I'm not sure if I'm going to be the new Cruyff, though. I'm not even going back {to Rosmalen, Holland} until the end of the year."

So a man whose glory had come in something called Super Vee before he ventured to Phoenix to pursue the American dream has won the greatest auto race of them all, putting the pedal to the metal in a car paid for by Domino's Pizza. What a country.