Wheldon wins stunning Indy 500 when leader crashes
Leading by more than 3 seconds with a lap to go, Hildebrand skidded high in the wall on the final turn, and Dan Wheldon drove past to claim an improbable 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 as Hildebrand took the white flag with a comfortable lead and needing only to make it through the last of 200 laps around the 2½-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, got in the rough patch of the track and lost control. He slammed the wall, allowing Wheldon to drive into Victory Lane.
"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 in second place while hugging the wall. While Wheldon celebrated, IndyCar officials reviewed the video to see if Wheldon passed the wrecked machine before the caution lights went on. It appeared he did, giving the Brit another Indy 500 title with a part-time team.
"I just felt a lot of relief. It's an incredible feeling," Wheldon said. "I never gave up."
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 didn't have enough fuel to make it to the end, forcing her to stop 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, no less — and couldn't find a regular ride this season.
He sat out the first four races of the year, then picked up a one-race deal with Bryan Herta Autosport. Surely now Wheldon will be able to find a more regular gig.
"It's more and more depressing when I don't win the race," said Patrick, who finished 10th. "But Dan Wheldon, he's a great winner. And what a great story. He hasn't run this year. ... That's really cool."
Patrick knows about misfortune leading to victory for Wheldon. His first victory came when she led late in the race only to back off the throttle to save enough fuel to finish.
This time, Wheldon never led a lap until the last one.
Hildebrand will always remember that final turn.
"Is it a move I would do again?" he said. "No."
Rahal finished third, followed by Tony Kanaan, Oriol Servia and Dixon. Franchitti lost speed in the closing laps and slipped all the way to 12th.
Right from the start, the Ganassi cars showed just how strong they would be on a sweltering day at the Brickyard, where the temperature climbed into the upper 80s and the heat on the track was well over 100 degrees.
From the middle of the front row, Dixon blew by pole-sitter Alex Tagliani before they even got to the start-finish line, diving into the first turn with the lead.
Tagliani ran strong through the first half of the race but began having problems with his handling. One car after another went by him as his laps speeds dropped into the 190s. Finally, on lap 147, he lost it coming out of the fourth turn and banged into the wall for a disappointing end to an amazing month for his car owner, Sam Schmidt, who watched the race from a wheelchair in the pits.
Schmidt has been a quadriplegic since a racing crash 11 years ago, but he's turned his efforts to building an IndyCar team. He had another car in the race, one-off driver Townsend Bell, who started from the inside of the second row and ran in the top 10 much of the day until he was collided with Ryan Briscoe on lap 158.
Briscoe's crash summed up the day for IndyCar's other elite team.
Roger Penske's trio of drivers capped a disappointing month with a grim performance on race day.
On the very first stop, Will Power drove out of the pits with a loose left rear wheel, which flew off before he got back on the track. While it bounced down pit road, Power set off around the 2½-mile oval on three wheels, sparks flying out from under his machine as it limped back for another tire. He finished 14th — the best showing for Penske Racing.
Helio Castroneves started back in 16th spot after struggling in qualifying and never made much of a run at his record-tying fourth Indy 500 win, doing his best just to stay on the lead lap. That effort ended when Briscoe and Bell got together — and Castroneves ran off a piece of debris, shredding a tire. He wound up one lap down in 17th.
Briscoe's crash left him in 27th.
There was only one wreck on the much-debated double-file restarts but plenty of thrilling moves — just what IndyCar officials were hoping for when they imposed the NASCAR-style procedure after each caution period.
At one point after taking green, Castroneves had to dive onto the lane that cars normally take coming out of the pits just to get through turn two, drawing a huge cheer from the crowd of more than 200,000.
Last updated: 5:06 pm Thursday, December 13, 2012