Photo courtesy openwheelworld.net
Dan Wheldon won the Centennial Anniversary of the Indy 500 in a finish that stunned the massive speedway crowd.
A long green flag run to conclude the event had several different strategies playing out and made for the exciting finish. Rookie J.R. Hildebrand, not on a fuel conservation mode like several of his rivals, was leading on the final lap and looked to become the winner in his first 500 start.
But with the checkered flag in sight, Hildebrand slapped the turn four wall and ground his car towards the finish line against the concrete barrier. Wheldon was close enough to pounce in second position and moved past the crippled Hildebrand machine just yards before the end. Hildebrand still salvaged second to Wheldon.
Wheldon does not have a regular Indycar Series ride and drove for Bryan Herta Autosport in a one-race deal.
“I was trying to go as hard as I could,” said Wheldon in Victory Lane. “I knew those other guys were trying to save fuel.”
The circumstances for the thrilling finish developed during the final fuel run.
Green flag stops began on lap 177 when top-five running Wheldon dove to pit road for service. The rest of the top runners began to make their final stops for tires and fuel including Dario Franchitti, Scott Dixon, and Oriol Servia.
The remaining contenders tried to stretch fuel mileage and found themselves near the front. Danica Patrick, Bertrand Baguette, Marco Andretti, and Thomas Scheckter held the top four positions. Franchitti rode in fifth, was expected to wait for the front quartet to pit, and cruise to his second consecutive victory.
Patrick slowed her pace to save fuel and gave up the lead to Baguette with 15 laps left.
Scheckter was the first of the foursome to hit pit road for fuel with 12 to go. Patrick and her teammate Andretti then pitted with 10 laps remaining.
Baguette stopped for fuel with three laps left which gave the lead to Hildebrand who grabbed first from a now fuel-saving Franchitti just seconds before. Hildebrand appeared to be headed for the win until he could literally see the flagstand.
When asked about the wild ending, Wheldon said “On the radio with 20 to go they said ‘Listen, here is the deal. Some people are going to try to make it on fuel and you’re one of the guys that can make it to the end but you’ve got to go and make sure you get every gallon out of the car you possibly can.’”
“On that last lap through turns three and four, as I exited the corner, out of the corner of my eye I saw him (Hildebrand) hit the fence. As Bryan (Herta) said you’ve got to make it to the bricks with a car that can go forward with all four wheels. At that point I knew it was mine,” said Wheldon.
Hildebrand spoke of his last lap heartbreak after the race.
“I ended up catching the 83 (Charlie Kimball) going into turn four in a fairly inopportune area,” a gracious Hildebrand said.
“I quickly decided, knowing that the cars in second and third were coming pretty strong, rather than downshifting a bunch, risking slowing the car way down coming onto the frontstretch to stay behind him, I thought ‘Well I’ll kind of breathe it and go to the high side’ because it is a move I had used earlier in the race to get around some slower cars,” Hildebrand said.
“I guess with the tires as worn as they were and the run being as long as that stint of the race being as long as it was, there was a bunch of marbles on the outside. Once I got up there and there wasn’t a heck of a lot I could do,” said Hildebrand, who gave Panther Racing their fourth consecutive second place finish in the 500.
Englishman Wheldon led only the final lap, setting a record for the fewest number a laps led by a winner.
Graham Rahal and Tony Kanaan both made strong charges from starting spots outside the top 20 to finish third and fourth. Front row starter Servia completed the top five.
Pole sitter Alex Tagliani made contact with the wall on lap 148 after running in the top-five most of the race and was credited with 28th.
“As soon as I knew it was not serious there was a little smile on my face,” said Wheldon elaborating on the last lap. “Then I think I got on the radio and started crying.”
After that thrilling finish in front of 300,000 fans, Wheldon wasn’t alone.
(Patrick Reynolds is a former NASCAR team mechanic who hosts "Motorweek Live" Mondays at 7pm ET/4pm PT. Listen at www.racersreunionradio.com.)