-- The rain held off just long enough for Buddy Rice.
The 28-year-old from Phoenix started the 88th running of the Indianapolis 500 on the pole and led the race for 91 laps -- more than any of the other 32 drivers in the field. But in addition to his starting position, his superlative driving skills and his well-tuned G-Force Honda, Rice needed cooperation from the weather, which wreaked havoc on the world's most famous auto race, to make it to Victory Lane.
Rain fell early Sunday, delaying the start of the race for more than two hours; it came during the race, forcing a break in the action of 1 hour 47 minutes after just 29 laps; and it started again, with darkness approaching, just two laps after Rice had gone back in front for the fifth and final time. Rice took the lead on Lap 172, the yellow caution flag was waved on Lap 174 and the race was ended under caution after 180 laps that featured 18 lead changes and nine leaders.
"We had everything fall into place today," said Rice, who won for the first time in his career. "It all kind of worked out."
The victory completed a stunning turn of events for Rice, who lost his ride with Eddie Cheever's team late last season. In December, Rice came to the team co-owned by Bobby Rahal and television personality David Letterman as a replacement for injured former Indy champion Kenny Brack. On Sunday he became the 17th pole-sitter to win the race and, more importantly for a sport with dwindling national popularity and few recognizable homegrown stars, ended a drought of American winners at the Brickyard. The last U.S. winner before Sunday was Cheever in 1998.
"This is pretty crazy," Rice said. "Like everybody said, this is everything you work for. It's the biggest race in the world, and to come here and not only sit on the pole, but obviously to win it . . . It's pretty cool."
Three members of the Andretti Green Racing team -- Tony Kanaan, Dan Wheldon and Bryan Herta -- finished second, third and fourth, respectively. All three led the race at one time, but the rain froze them within striking distance of Rice's lead and the Borg-Warner Trophy.
According to the Andretti Green drivers, however, the rain was far from the most important factor in Rice's victory.
"The right guy won today," Herta said. "Buddy Rice had the fastest car, and he won the race. That's the way the Indy 500 is supposed to be."
The rain, however, played a huge part in race strategy. After 101 of the 200 laps were completed, the race became official, meaning another prolonged stop likely would end the race with the leader at the time winning. Sure enough, soon after the leaders passed 101 laps, gray clouds rolled in and rain seemed imminent. Drivers could gamble on not making a pit stop if they believed they only had a handful of laps left.
"If you can predict the weather, you're going to win every race," said Kanaan, who led the race for 28 laps, second-most in the field.
Rice pitted for the last time during Lap 167, giving the lead to Herta. But Herta made a pit stop during Lap 169, and Adrian Fernandez took the lead for the first time as moisture began to show on television cameras. Fernandez made a pit stop on Lap 171, however, and Rice retook the lead. Two laps later, the rain brought the eighth -- and last -- yellow flag of the race. "To lose the race because of the rain, that would have been tough to swallow," said former Indy champion Rahal.
"I'm listening to the radio and the officials are saying, 'Well, we don't think it's wet enough yet [to stop the race]. I said, 'Like hell, it's wet! I think we ought to red flag this right now.' So, obviously every other pit was saying the opposite."
Rice's ride derailed Team Penske's run for an unprecedented fourth consecutive Indy 500 victory. Roger Penske's crew owns 13 Indy titles and had won three consecutive races since returning to the Brickyard after the acrimonious split between the Indy Racing League (IRL) and the Championship Auto Racing Teams (CART) series. Sunday, Penske's drivers -- Helio Castroneves and Sam Hornish Jr. -- both were hurt by ill-fated pit stops.
Castroneves, who won in 2001 and 2002, was in third place when he went for a pit stop during Lap 133. The stop took 27 seconds, however, and Castroneves fell all the way to 18th place. He finished ninth.
Hornish, who long has been considered the future of U.S. open-wheel racing and the best candidate to end the Americans' drought at Indy, saw a promising day in which he led for nine laps quickly unravel after a stop at the race's halfway point. Hornish pulled away while the hose used to fuel his Dallara Toyota was still attached to his gas tank. The hose broke off and Hornish stalled twice before exiting the pits. He stopped again one lap later to fix the vent, and when he returned to the track he ended up in a crash with Greg Ray and Darren Manning that finished his day.
"We'll move on, wait for the next time and see if we can win one of these days," Hornish said.
Not today, when Rice made a name for himself, his team and, perhaps, American racing.
"Hopefully this shows to some of the other kids and some from go-karts to circle track to whatever they are doing that they can make it here," Rice said. "And they can come here and win."