"I did for a second. The mirrors on our cars really aren't that great. It was tough to tell down the back straight. I took a glimpse to see where [Wheldon] was at," he said. "There was certainly a split-second where I thought, 'Oh, shoot, maybe I'll pull a Terry Labonte at Martinsville or Bristol or whatever it was that year!'" he said smiling, before it sank in again: "Obviously, no such luck."
Hildebrand was trying to be philosophical about how it turned out, to accentuate the positives and take some important lessons away from him.
"I'm smart enough as a rookie to not expect, no matter what's going to happen, I'm going to come to the Indianapolis 500 my first year and be in a position to win the race," he said. "As it turned out, we most certainly were. We were in a position that we should have won the race.
"So for me, it's not so much that I'm pissed off or disappointed that my face isn't going to go on the Borg-Warner. Just with this team, Panther Racing has finished second three years in a row now with the National Guard sponsorship, I felt like we had an incredible opportunity to get on a big stage for those guys."
Asked how he felt right now, Hildebrand insisted that "This is not really about me at this point. You always show up to try to win. But for me, my disappointment is for the team and for National Guard as a sponsor," especially with the Indy 500 being held as part of the ultra-patriotic Memorial Day weekend celebrations. "With so many servicemen and women out here for this weekend, it's really a treat to be a part of that. It would have been an outstanding feat to be able to get up on the top step of the podium for them, as well.
"It's not really like a personal thing right now," he continued. "Maybe down the road it will turn into a personal thing that I'll just be pissed off at myself for not doing whatever. In the end, it's really more about the people, for me at least, this team has worked so hard, it's such an integral part of being here at Indianapolis and being successful at Indianapolis, that's really where the sort of heartbreak is for me right now.
John Barnes, the co-owner of Panther Racing, was unswerving in his support for his devastated young driver.
"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 did a great job," said Barnes. "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."
Hildebrand reciprocated the feelings. "John was great," he said. "That was certainly a welcomed face and emotion for me walking down the pit lane. Sometimes you never know what you're going to get from a team when you've just lost the Indy 500 by a spot or whatever. But he's a real driver's owner from that perspective. He's ultracompetitive, but at the same time he can understand I think the emotions of what the driver goes through, as well."
Panther were thought to be considering an appeal to the race result based on the way that Dan Wheldon had seemed to overtake Hildebrand under yellow flags after the smash while Hildebrand was still in motion, scraping down the track toward the finish line which he finally crossed in second place. In fact the course was still green until the chequered welcomed Wheldon home, but in any case IndyCar officials said that the result would have stood regardless.
"Brian Barnhart explained to us that because JR was a wounded car on the last lap, he was fair game," said Barnes. "I'm fine with that. It's a classy decision and we're not going to protest."