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Indy 500: Dan Wheldon's shock win

29 May 2011

The final laps of the centennial Indianapolis 500 were a non-stop emotional roller coaster which looked set to deliver one shock winner of the event after another - and yet still no one saw Dan Wheldon coming through in the last corner to steal the show.

After two consecutive years of coming second at Indianapolis, Dan Wheldon claimed his second Indy 500 title with his third different team in three years, Bryan Herta Autosport - showing what remarkable consistency and strong performance he's able to show at this circuit.

The Ganassi duo of Dario Franchitti and Scott Dixon dominated the first half of the race, occasionally sharing the top spots first with pole sitter Alex Tagliani and later with Oriol Servia, but always looking as through they were simply biding their time ready to stretch their legs and battle it out between themselves for the win in the final stages.

But after Sam Schmidt Motorsports' Townsend Bell had collided with Penske's Ryan Briscoe on lap 158 to bring out the final caution of the evening, Dario Franchitti opted to come in immediately before the restart on lap 164 to top up his fuel to the brim with the intention of staying out to the very end, where everyone else would be a few laps short of full race distance. The only other driver to try and follow Dario's lead was Panther Racing's rookie driver JR Hildebrand.

The cars ahead of them one by one started to fall away as the race laps ticked down: Dan Wheldon was the first to come in under the green on lap 177, the fresh tyres giving him a key edge on speed over those staying out. When Scott Dixon came in two laps later it left Danica Patrick in charge of the race, the second time in her career that she had led the Indy 500. Unfortunately she could not make it on fuel, and a serious vibration problem meant that she had to surrender the lead to the Belgian driver Bertrand Baguette.

For a few minutes, it looked as if we were going to have a Belgian winner of the Greatest Spectacle in Racing. He wasn't trying to save any fuel, and built up a huge 10s lead over Dario Franchitti who was now tracking him in second.

The smart money was still on Dario, who would stay out when Baguette pitted. But suddenly Ganassi were in crisis mode when they realised that Dario simply didn't have enough fuel to make it to the end: without a late caution as they had been expecting, Dario had to go into the ultimate fuel conservation mode and his pace dropped off a cliff. He was consequently passed by everyone on the lead lap, and his dreams of a third Indy 500 title ended in dust.

Astonishingly, JR Hildebrand - the only driver who had copied Dario's strategy - was showing no such signs of fuel expiry in the National Guard entry. He was still going, and flew past Dario to take up the lead. He passed the white flag and had just 2.5 miles to go: even if he ran dry, it looked like he would still make it across the start/finish line and become an American rookie winner of the Indy 500. The crowd was on its feet and yelling and cheering.

And then Hildebrand came off of turn 4, drifted high, went onto the marbles - and slammed into the wall. A huge shockwave went through the crowd who could barley believe the high drama of what they were seeing. Hildebrand's car was still sliding along the wall and sheer momentum was going to carry it across the finish line after all ...

But then a blur of white and orange raced past, and Dan Wheldon materialised seemingly out of nowhere to take the chequered flag - an astonishing end to the race. Dan Wheldon could barely hold back the tears of joy as he gave his post-race TV conference.

"We came here to win," said his equally overcome car owner Bryan Herta, who was a driver here in 2005 when Wheldon won his first Indy 500. "We always said we came here to win ... But we actually won!"

The Panther team did file an appeal post-race on the technicality that Hildebrand was overtaken under yellow after his crash - a creative use of the rule book since no one would ever claim that a wrecked car could not be "passed" under yellow. But as the car was still in motion - and did indeed subsequently cross the finish line - the appeal had to be taken under serious consideration and may have technical grounds for overturning Wheldon's win.

Just because the chequered flag has come out doesn't mean that the drama is over, it seems.

Read: Panther appeal decision.


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