INDIANAPOLIS — Dan Wheldon was zipping toward the final corner of Sunday’s Indianapolis 500, surely figuring the best he could do was another runner-up finish.
Then he came upon JR Hildebrand’s crumpled car, all smashed up and sliding along the wall.
The rookie had made the ultimate mistake with his very last turn of the wheel, and Wheldon, not Hildebrand, made an improbable turn into Victory Lane.
“It’s obviously unfortunate, but that’s Indianapolis,” said Wheldon, who won Indy in 2005 and finished second the past two years. “That’s why it’s the greatest spectacle in racing. You never now what’s going to happen.” This might have been the whackiest one ever.
In his first event of the year, Wheldon captured the ultimate IndyCar prize. But the 100th anniversary of the “Greatest Spectacle in Racing” will be remembered more for the guy who let it slip away with the checkered flag in sight.
Leading by almost 4 seconds and needing to make it around the 2 1⁄2-mile track just one more time, Hildebrand cruised through the first three turns with no problem.
The fourth one got him. He went too high, lost control and slammed into the outside wall. Wheldon sped past, while Hildebrand’s battered machine skidded across the line 2.1 seconds behind, still hugging the concrete barrier.
“It’s a helpless feeling,” Hildebrand said.
The 23-year-old Californian got into trouble when he came up on another rookie, Charlie Kimball, going much slower as they approached the last corner. Instead of backing off, the leader moved to the outside to make the pass — a decision that sent him slamming into the wall to a collective gasp from the crowd of 250,000.
“I caught him in the wrong piece of track,” Hildebrand said. “I got up in the marbles and that was it.”
While Wheldon celebrated his second Indy 500 win, series officials reviewed the video to see if Wheldon passed the wrecked machine before the caution lights went on. He clearly did, and Hildebrand’s team said it wouldn’t protest the result.
That gave the Brit another spot on the Borg-Warner Trophy.
Not bad, considering he doesn’t even have a full-time job.
“I just felt a lot of relief. It’s an incredible feeling,” Wheldon said. “I never gave up.”
He took the traditional swig of milk and headed off on a triumphant lap around the speedway — a lap that Hildebrand should have been taking.
Instead, the youngster stopped by the garage to get a look at his mangled car, which was hauled through Gasoline Alley instead of being wheeled into Victory Lane.
“I’m just frustrated. It’s not because we came in here with the expectation of winning and we didn’t,” Hildebrand said. “I felt like I just made a mistake and it cost our boys. I guess that’s why rookies don’t win the Indianapolis 500 a whole lot, and we’ll be back next year, I guess.”
The 200-lap 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 had to stop for fuel 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. He has 16 career wins and finished in the top 10 of the series standings seven years in a row, capturing the title in 2005.
But in the peculiar world of auto racing, which runs on sponsorship dollars and not necessarily credentials, Wheldon was squeezed out of his ride at Panther.
“Dan Wheldon, he’s a great winner,” Patrick said. “And what a great story. He hasn’t run this year. ... That’s really cool.”
Still, it was a bitter disappointment for Patrick, who ended up 10th.
“It’s more and more depressing when I don’t win the race,” said Indy’s leading lady, who might be heading to NASCAR next year.
Patrick knows about misfortune leading to victory for Wheldon. His first victory came when she led late in the race, only to have to back off the throttle to save enough fuel to make it to the finish.
This time, Wheldon never led a lap until the last one, the first time that’s happened since Joe Dawson won the second Indy 500 in 1912.
It was the second time a driver lost the lead on the last lap — it happened to another rookie, Marco Andretti, in 2006 — and it’s something Hildebrand will always remember.
Rahal finished third, followed by hard-charging Tony Kanaan, who came all the way from the 22nd starting spot to contend for his first 500 win, just a year after leaving Michael Andretti’s team. Dixon was fifth, followed by Oriol Servia, while Franchitti lost speed in the closing laps and slipped all the way to 12th.
San Luis Obispo’s Townsend Bell finished 26th. He was on the 157th lap when an accident took him out of the race.