Champion Again: Dan Wheldon Takes Indy 500, Hildebrand Crashes In Second
It may have not been the 100th running of the Indianapolis 500, but it certainly deserved the accolades it merited in its centennial anniversary.
Not only did it produce one of the most dramatic qualifying rounds in recent memory, but this year's 500-miler resulted in one of the most wildest finishes in the race's history as it pitted rookie racer against a grizzled veteran.
As race leader J.R. Hildebrand prepared to take the checkered flag in his No. 4 National Guard Dallara-Honda/Firestone machine prepared by Panther Racing, he ran into "some marbles," or a treacherous portion of the track where grip is almost hard to come by.
Attempting to pass 12th-place Charlie Kimball, the 23-year-old Sausalito, CA native found himself making hard contact with the outside-retaining wall off turn four.
Hildebrand would hit the wall twice more, with just enough momentum to finish the race in a disappointing second-place with a car that finished with only three wheels.
Zooming by the wrecked machine of Hildebrand was Dan Wheldon in his No. 98 William Rast/Curb/Big Machine Dallara/Honda/Firestone car, leading about the length of the frontstretch to take his second Indy 500 win.
Emotions ran high for the first and second-place finishers, with the race meaning so much to both racers in terms of motivation.
For Wheldon, it was a way to honor his mother who was recently diagnosed with Alzhimer's disease, which got the Englishman to break down in Victory Lane.
Additionally, the 32-year-old Emberton, England native entered this season in a part-time IZOD IndyCar campaign, unsure of whether he'd run on a racely basis with his Bryan Herta Autosport team.
For one afternoon on Memorial Day Sunday, he surely reminded his colleagues that he hadn't forgotten how to drive an open wheel car.
"I just felt a lot of relief," Wheldon said per AP Sports Writer Paul Newberry's race recap. "It's an incredible feeling. I never gave up."
When commenting on Hildebrand's contact with the wall on the final corner coming to the checkered flag, Wheldon said, "It's obviously unfortunate, but that's Indianapolis.
"That's why it's the greatest spectacle in racing. You never know what's going to happen."
Hildebrand entered the 500 under the radar as a rookie racer who was just hoping to even finish the race with a respectable showing.
However, he'll probably have his turn four crash replaying in his mind until next year's race should he find himself once again in the lead late in the race.
Until next year's Indy 500, he'll be left to think, "What if?"
"It's a helpless feeling," Hildebrand said. "I caught him (Kimball) in the wrong piece of the track. I got up in the marbles and that was it.
"I'm just frustrated. It's not because we came in here with the expectation of winnning and we didn't. I felt like I just made a mistake and it cost our boys."
Perhaps more dejected than the rookie racer were the Penske and Ganassi racing camps, whose drivers struggled collectively to produce solid finishes.
Sure, Graham Rahal, Scott Dixon, and Charlie Kimball brought home third, sixth, and 13th place finishes for Ganassi, but that surely didn't ease the disappointment for what was shaping up to be yet another Dario Franchitti win at The Brickyard.
The Nos. 9 and 10 Target teams came up short for Dixon and Franchitti, which made their combined 104 laps at the front of the field much more of a sting than a comforting fact.
Dixon was a casualty of the late green-flag shuffling with the fuel mileage and pit strategy games, while Franchitti's car just lacked the speed and fuel to make a final assault for the win.
Also trying to make a final push for a dark horse victory was Belgium's Bertrand Baguette, who started the day in 14th before finishing seventh.
A win would've been a sweet experience for the 25-year-old racer, but a respectable showing certainly had to be a confidence booster for the pride of Thimister-Clermont.
Just as dejected was pole sitter Alex Tagliani, who smacked the turn four wall and sent him finishing in the 28th position.
Reminiscent of the 2005 race, the finish nearly played out in similar fashion, as Danica Patrick inherited a late race-lead only to lose it with a late race fuel stop costing her another shot at winning the Indy 500.
Ultimately, she placed 10th, which was a salvaging result given the struggles of her Andretti Autosport teammates during the past two weeks.
"It's more and more disappointing when I don't win the race," Patrick said following the race. Reflecting on the race winner, she added, "Dan Wheldon, he's a great winner. And what a great story.
"He hasn't run this year...that's really cool."
Patrick wasn't the only female to compete during Sunday's 500, as she was joined by England's Pippa Mann, who placed 20th, Brazil's Ana Beatriz (21st), and Switzerland's Simona de Silvestro, who placed 31st.
Mann kept her car in one piece with a solid performance, holding her own in her IZOD IndyCar Series debut while Beatriz duplicated her efforts from last year with another respectable showing.
This year's 500 saw 10 drivers swap the lead amongst themselves 24 times, with Dixon and Franchitti having a combined 11 trips as the leader of the race.
Perhaps summed best by ESPN on ABC's race host Brent Musburger, the best way to reflect on this year's Indianapolis 500 is by pondering this reflection:
"How will you remember the 2011 Indianapolis 500? Will you remember it for race winner Dan Wheldon or for JR Hildebrand's last lap crash in the lead?"
However you choose to remember it, this year's 500 has certainly made its case as one for the ages in motorsports history.
Here's a look at the top 10 race finishers from the 95th running of the Indianapolis 500 (all racers competed in Dallara/Honda/Firestone machines):
- Dan Wheldon
- J.R. Hildebrand
- Graham Rahal
- Tony Kanaan
- Scott Dixon
- Oriol Servia
- Bertrand Baguette
- Tomas Scheckter
- Marco Andretti
- Danica Patrick
After all the interviews and publicity for race winner Dan Wheldon, he and his series comrades will hit up the Texas Motor Speedway for the Firestone Twin 275s (Live, June 11 at 8 PM EST on VS), which will certainly try to build on the excitement from Indianapolis with a pair of exciting races from the Lone Star State.
Author's Notes: Please take the time to check out and join the fight to battle pediatric cancer via donation with Larry Graff and the Jeff Gordon Children's Foundation as they'll participate in CureSearch's Walk on Long Island on Saturday June 11th.
You can join in person or online as a virtual walker. All the info about this great cause is at http://gordonline.com/curesearch.html and http://www.curesearchwalk.org/longisland/jeffgordon. Thank you. - RT