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 know what’s going to happen.”
This might have been the strangest 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 2½-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. He’s now in the company of athletes such as Jean Van de Velde, who squandered a three-shot lead on the last hole of the 1999 British Open, and Lindsey Jacobellis, whose hotdogging wipeout at the 2006 Winter Olympics cost her a certain gold medal.
They had it in the bag — and threw it all away.
“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.”
After losing his ride from last season — with Hildebrand’s team, no less — Wheldon had plenty of time to hang out with his wife and two young children, while also dealing with the burden of his mother being diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. He longed to get back behind the wheel, and when May rolled around he had a one-off deal with retired driver Bryan Herta’s fledgling team.
They came up with a winning combination, which may well lead to a bigger gig.
For now, though, there are no guarantees — even for the Indy 500 champion.
“I think my contract expires at midnight,” Wheldon said, managing a smile.
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.”