29 May 2011
Indy 500: Wheldon takes second title as JR crashes
Stunningly, one of those cars was the race leader - Dario Franchitti. Surely he wouldn't be throwing his strong lead away and dropping to 12th on a Hail Mary risky stunt? And yet the only driver who decided to follow his lead was the 23-year-old rookie from California, JR Hildebrand. This was either a brilliant, race-winning move for Dario (and potentially an assured second place for Hildebrand in his first Indy 500, too) - or it was throwing away his chance of a third Indy 500 there and then. Only time, and another 26 laps, would tell.
After a race that had looked so stable and as if it was floating serenely toward the inevitable Ganassi win with the only outstanding question being which one of Scott or Dario would come out top, suddenly the whole race was thrown into escalating chaos. Whoever you thought would win, suddenly all bets were off.
Servia led at the restart, but then he was passed by Graham Rahal who led for six laps - and on such a historic day as the centennial Indy 500, how great was it to have a name with such resonance to the sport as Rahal back on top of the leaderboard, however briefly. Then Dixon came back and took the top spot for another seven laps.
On everyone's mind was the inescapable fact that all of these cars needed that extra splash of fuel to make it to the end of the race, and on lap 177 Dan Wheldon fired the starting gun on those desperate make-or-break visits to pit road; Rahal and Servia came in the next lap and Dixon was in the lap after that, which handed the race lead to none other than Danica Patrick for only the second time in her Indy 500 career.
She kept the lead for ten laps, but she was now suffering with increasingly severe vibration problems that were making the car near impossible to drive. "Bad enough to come in?" enquired her pit crew: Danica was silent, wishing that she could stay out and hope for a miracle caution, but ultimately having to take to pit road 11 laps shy of the finish.
And into the breach came Bertrand Baguette, the Belgian racer that no one had even thought was in with the slightest chance. Could it possibly be the biggest upset of the decade - could Bertrand really pull this off? He certainly wasn't afraid of running flat-out, and the idea of fuel conservation didn't seem to have entered his mind. He didn't have the secret of ever-lasting gas tanks, did he?
He came tantalisingly close, and built up a huge lead of 10s over Dario Franchitti in second place. Baguette was running at 218mph compared with 208mph for Dario, but none of that mattered if the #30 couldn't make it to the finish line. It seemed that Ganassi's cunning last-second splash-and-dash at the end of the last caution had done the trick and that the Scot was about to get his third Indy 500 title.
Except Franchitti's lap speed was falling ... and falling ... And now it was no longer just fuel conservation, but worst-case scenario: the lack of any further late-race cautions meant that he wasn't going to make it full race distance either, except by crawling round so slowly that everyone else would get to stream past him. His Indy dream had well and truly disappeared before his very eyes.
If Franchitti couldn't make it, then clearly JR Hildebrand - the only other driver to pit for a top-up at the same time as Dario on lap 164 - wouldn't make it either. It didn't matter that he took the lead with three to go when Bertrand finally had to concede defeat and head to pit road, because obviously he too was about to run dry.
Except the rookie kept on coming. And coming. And still coming. He took the white flag and started his final 2.5 mile circulation, and surely even if he ran dry now he was still far enough ahead of the late stoppers led by Dan Wheldon? It seemed impossible to believe that he now wouldn't make the finish line in first place and claim a famous, historic win in the centennial event - a true rookie win=.
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