INDIANAPOLIS — JR Hildebrand was one turn away from winning the Indianapolis 500 on his very first try. Then, within sight of the checkered flag, the 23-year-old Californian made the ultimate mistake.
Hildebrand slammed into 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 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, 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.”
Not so much for Hildebrand.
He’ll always remember that final turn.