JR Hildebrand stood beside the crumpled car and ran his fingers through his hair, trying to discern just what transpired on the final lap of the 100th anniversary Indianapolis 500.
The 23-year-old Californian was a few hundred yards from being the first rookie to win the race since Helio Castroneves in 2001 and creating a storyline that would follow him into the record books. But, as all veterans will say, nothing is for certain in 200 laps of racing on the 2.5-mile strip of asphalt.
Hildebrand’s No. 4 National Guard Panther Racing car drifted up the track exiting Turn 4 and smacked the SAFER Barrier. Dan Wheldon, the 2005 race and IZOD IndyCar Series champion, was Danny on the spot for the victory.
Wheldon’s No. 98 William Rast-CURB/Big Machine car for Bryan Herta Autosport with Curb/Agajanian overtook Hildebrand’s sliding car and crossed the start/finish line under yellow. Chief steward Brian Barnhart said there’s no requirement for cars not involved in an accident to stay behind those involved/disabled.
“It’s a fantastic achievement everybody at Bryan Herta Autosport,” said Wheldon, his voice choking with emotion. “I love everything about Indianapolis – the tradition, the fans, the history.”
A Panther Racing car has been the Indy 500 runner-up the past four years (including 2009 and ’10 driven by Wheldon).
Wheldon, who started sixth, said his surprise of seeing Hildebrand car make heavy right-side contact with the SAFER Barrier turned to “relief.” Wheldon was running fifth with 10 laps remaining, but jumped into contention when race leader Bertrand Baguette pitted for a splash on Lap 197 and he overtook Scott Dixon a lap later.
“I was just trying to go as hard as I could,” continued Wheldon, who was competing in his first race of the season. “I knew it was the last lap and I knew some of those guys were struggling with fuel (he pitted on Lap 177). I’ve been runner-up two years before this, but I never gave up. It’s an incredible feeling.”
Hildebrand, who inherited the lead when Baguette pitted, said he was trying to conserve fuel (he last pitted on Lap 164) on the white flag lap.
“I knew we were really tight on fuel coming to the end, and the spotters were in my ear saying, ‘The guys are coming and they’re coming hard,’ ’’ said Hildebrand, who qualified 12th (the fastest rookie). “We had to conserve a little fuel and the tires were coming to the end of their stint. I was hanging a little on to get the thing around.
“I made a judgment call catching up on the 83 (the lapped car driven by fellow rookie Charlie Kimball) and I thought I don’t really want to slow down behind him and pull out on the straightaway, and I’ve been able to make this move on the outside before and so I went to the high side and because it was at the end of the stint I got up in the marbles and that was it.
“I’m OK, but this is not really about me at this point. You always show up to try to win. My disappointment is for the team and for National Guard as a sponsor. It’s one of the those things, as a driver, you never really know what you’re going to expect. We knew we had a fast race car. We knew if the race came to us, we may be in a position to sort of finish top three, top five.”
Added team owner John Barnes: “We came here with a rookie driver and everybody says we’re going to have trouble and everything, but I can tell you that he (JR) did a great job. He drove to a fuel number I didn’t think was going to be attainable. We’re so proud of him and the people at Panther and the crew.”
Graham Rahal, who started 29th, finished third for his second consecutive podium, and Tony Kanaan charged from 22nd to finish fourth. Dixon, who started in the middle of the front row and led a field-high 73 laps, faded to fifth, and Oriol Servia, who started on the front row, was sixth.
“I think between Dario (Franchitti) and myself we had this race covered,” said Dixon, the 2008 race winner. “We were in similar circumstances. I’m not sure how the No. 4 car was able to get that far on fuel. It’s just frustrating, and I was frustrated with the restarts overall. The Target car was good to start with but then we started burning the left front tire off. We made changes to it in the end and that seemed to help. Dario was on a straight different strategy than us and it didn’t work for either of us today.”
Franchitti, the 2010 race winner, led 51 laps and was running second on Lap 195. But he had to pit for a splash of fuel on Lap 199 and finished 12th.
Tomas Scheckter advanced 13 positions to finish eighth and Marco Andretti picked up 18 spots to finish ninth. Andretti Autosport teammate Danica Patrick was 10th.
There were 23 lead changes among 10 drivers and seven cautions for 40 laps. Patrick led 10 laps late in the No. 7 Team GoDaddy car, but had to pit with 10 laps left.
“It’s the Indy 500; you have to take a chance to win,” said Patrick, who started 25th. “I would much rather leave here finishing a little bit further down by taking a chance and having the option to win than coming away with a lower position and not having that chance. Overall, it was a great day for the whole GoDaddy.com team. We have kept our heads up all month and came out ahead at the end. We will use this as positive momentum going into Texas.”