After one of the craziest finishes in racing history, Dan Wheldon emerged as winner of the Indianapolis 500 on Sunday at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
Just when it looked like rookie J.R. Hildebrand was one corner away from giving Panther Racing its first Indy 500 victory, he got up into the marbles in the fourth turn, bouncing the right side of the car into the wall.
Wheldon avoided the accident, passing Hildebrand to become a two-time champion. Hildebrand still had enough momentum to limp across the bricks to a second-place finish.
“I was just trying to go as hard as I could,” Wheldon said.
Wheldon came to Indy with the promise of only one race with Bryan Herta Motorsports, a small team Herta called last year, “Two Men and a Truck Racing.”
“It’s a fantastic achievement for the fans and Bryan. He’s given me such a dream ride,” said Wheldon.
Hildebrand was more disappointed for his team than himself, saying “We should have won the race … we had an incredible opportunity.”
Team owner John Barnes said, “I couldn’t be prouder,” but he added, “I think he will re-think Turn 4 the next time.”
Wheldon started sixth, staying in the top 10 most of the day.
Pole-sitter Alex Tagliani quickly fell to third when Scott Dixon and Oriol Servia passed him before the end of lap one. Tagliani took over on lap 10 for 18 laps before relinquishing again to Dixon. Tagliani, the Cinderella story of the race, led just one more time before brushing the Turn 4 wall on lap 148, leaving him with a 28th-place finish.
Takuma Sato brought out the first yellow of the race on lap 21 after getting out of the groove in Turn 1, brushing the concrete retaining wall between Turns 1 and 2. Sato was uninjured, but it set up the very first double-file restart for the series on ovals.
Going into the first turn on the restart, E.J. Viso restarted on the outside and moved down into the grass causing the car to spin, hitting the right side on the SAFER barrier.
Dixon led until Target Ganassi teammate Dario Franchitti passed him for the lead. Jay Howard brought out another yellow when he crashed re-entering the track from the acceleration lane. He lost the right rear tire, then hit the inside retaining wall. Howard did not sustain any injuries.
Franchitti restarted lap 70 in the lead, followed by Dixon, Tagliani and Wheldon. For the next 70 laps, Franchitti traded the lead several times with Dixon, Hildebrand, Servia and Bertrand Baguette. Danica Patrick had been slowly working her way into the top 10 after starting 25th and Marco Andretti also managed to climb into contention.
Patrick took the lead on lap on lap 179. Reminiscent of her rookie run in 2005, Patrick was leading, but fuel would again be the enemy. She had to stop on lap 189, just after Baguette passed her for the lead.
Baguette, a one-off driver for Rahal-Letterman Racing, extended his lead over Franchitti and Franchitti began to slow his pace in fuel-economy mode.
Baguette’s lead was more than eight seconds when he also had to make a final fuel stop. As the race entered the final stages, it became clear that, although Team Penske had been a non-contender the whole day, the other powerhouse team of Dixon and Franchitti would get a run for their money from several drivers.
Franchitti’s team called him in for a last stop, something Franchitti did not understand.
“I’m disappointed with the result. I don’t second-guess these guys. I only have a narrow view. They have the big picture,” he said afterward.
Dixon also was confused.
“Why we short-fueled, I don’t know,” he said. “We stopped 10 laps before anyone else, there’s no way we should have run out of fuel.”
At that time, Hildebrand and Dixon went by Franchitti; by the end of the race, Dixon and Franchitti had fallen to fifth and 12th respectively.
In his first season for Chip Ganassi, Graham Rahal crossed the finish line third, his best-ever Indy finish.
“I thought we probably had the best race car of any of our teammates. We were excellent in traffic,” said Rahal, who started in the 29th position.
Tony Kanaan of KV Racing started 22nd and ran solid all day. He worked his way into the top 10 in the final 20 laps before finishing fourth.
“We had a good car,” he summarized. “I didn’t have the car to win. It was a good race for us. You have to remember five days before the race season, we didn’t have a team.”
Servia, Baguette and Tomas Scheckter finished sixth, seventh and eighth respectively.
“We were up there,” Servia pointed out. “We showed we have something for these guys.”
Andretti and Patrick finished ninth and 10th respectively, giving the Andretti Autosport team some redemption from the dismal qualifying efforts. Andretti at one point in the race had moved to fourth, but made a call that did not work out in the end.
“The car was good until we trimmed,” he explained. “We were sitting pretty with some track position and then we gave it away.”
At 14th, Will Power was the highest-finishing driver for Team Penske. Power’s trouble started early when on his first pit stop, he left the pits before getting the signal. Subsequently, his left rear tire was not tightened. It came off on the track, forcing him back to the pits.
Three-time winner Helio Castroneves finished 17th, while Ryan Briscoe finished 27th after getting caught up in an accident when Townsend Bell moved too far down on him into Turn 1 on lap 158. The cars became locked together along the retaining wall between the first and second turns.
Dixon and Franchitti combined for a total of 124 laps led.