JR Hildebrand was one turn away from winning the Indianapolis 500 on his very first try. Then, within sight of the checkered flag, the 23-year-old Californian made the ultimate rookie mistake.
Hildebrand slammed into the wall on the final turn, and Dan Wheldon drove on past to claim an improbable Indy 500 win Sunday in his first race of the year.
Wheldon, the 2005 winner but without a full-time ride this season, appeared headed for his third straight runner-up finish as Hildebrand took the white flag with a comfortable lead and needing only to make it through the last of 200 laps around the 2½-mile speedway.
The first three turns went smoothly. Then, Hildebrand came up on another rookie, Charlie Kimball, in the fourth turn. Instead of backing off, Hildebrand slid to the outside, got in the rough patch of the track and lost control. He slammed the wall, allowing Wheldon to drive into Victory Lane.
“I caught him in the wrong piece of track,” Hildebrand said. “I got up in the marbles and that was it.”
Hildebrand’s crumpled machine slid across the finish line in second place while hugging the wall. While Wheldon celebrated, IndyCar officials reviewed the video to see if Wheldon passed the wrecked machine before the caution lights went on. It appeared he did, giving the Brit another Indy 500 title with a part-time team.
“I just felt a lot of relief. It’s an incredible feeling,” Wheldon said. “I never gave up.”