30 May 2011
Indy 500: 'A Cinderella story' - Wheldon
Dan Wheldon was in tears as he took the chequered flag at the end of the centennial Indianapolis 500, saying it was a fairy tale come true: "This is a Cinderella story!"
No one doubted Dan Wheldon's driving talent and abilities coming into the 2011 Indianapolis 500: two consecutive second-place finishes here in the last two years proved that well enough.
But coming here in a one-off deal with a start-up team, having failed to find a regular IndyCar season seat for the year, meant that Dan Wheldon never featured in anyone's list of "drivers who might actually pull this off", not when faced with the Ganassi and Penske juggernauts - even when the team performed impressively on pole day and qualified for the race on the second row of the grid in sixth place.
"On paper, based on our previous effort, anything, on paper we really had no business believing we could win it," admitted Bryan Herta, the team owner behind Dan Wheldon's Indy 500 campaign. "But Dan believed in us so strongly he made us believe it, too. I really think over the course of this last two weeks, he made the crew guys believe it, he made a lot of people on the outside believe it ... It's really his spirit that came across the whole team and made us believe we had a chance to win this thing."
"Bryan has been a teammate and a good friend for a long time gave me a fantastic opportunity to win this race," said Wheldon, beaming from ear to ear. "I just knew when I started this race that I wanted to do everything in my power to deliver a win for not just myself, I didn't feel we had anything to prove, but for such a great group of people."
It wouldn't be right to say that Wheldon simply won because others' pit stop strategies backfired - the Bryan Herta Autosport William Rast #98 was always circulating right up there in the top six from the very start, and wouldn't budge even as others (such as polesitter Alex Tagliani) started to falter over the gruelling 500 mile, three hour race.
But certainly it was Ganassi's strange decision to put race leader Dario Franchitti on a daring long-distance fuel conservation strategy and to short-fill Scott Dixon that opened a door of opportunity to Herta's leading driver.
"There were several different strategies being played out there," said Herta. "We were on the strategy of Dario had been going longer than us on the pits all day long. When we saw him coming in, it kind of made up our mind to stay out because we knew we couldn't beat him on fuel mileage. We had to try something different.
"So when these strategies were playing out, I wasn't sure how it was going to work out. But we knew we wanted to give this guy enough fuel to race to the end, just keep it flat. We didn't want to save fuel, we wanted to go race those guys."
Wheldon was fully on board with that. "On the radio with 20 to go, they said: 'Listen, this is the deal. Some people are going to try to make it on fuel. You're one of the guys that can make it to the end. But you've got to go and you have to make sure you get everything out of the car that you possibly can,'" he explained. "I didn't have a problem. I was able to catch traffic perfectly without having to lift. They said that there was one person [JR Hildebrand] that potentially could make it, I believe. So that made me even more hungry. I started pressing the overtake ...
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