Byline: Pete DiPrimio
INDIANAPOLIS _ Dan Wheldon weeped. Can you blame him? Luck, perseverance, unexpected last-lap victory and thoughts of his ailing mother hit him almost as hard as the Indianapolis Motor Speedway's Turn 4 wall crushed rookie JR Hildebrand's Indy 500-winning hopes.
Wheldon led Sunday's Indy 500 for perhaps a quarter of a mile, but it was the last quarter, and the only one that counted. So he cried. And then, he celebrated.
"I was trying to go as hard as I could. I kept pushing. It's such a dream ride. I didn't want to give up. It's my only race of the year. I'll be unemployed come tomorrow."
Now comes the big question _ is winning the Indy 500 for the second time enough to earn Wheldon a ride for the rest of the IndyCar season? His one-and-done contract with Bryan Herta Autosport ended at midnight.
The short answer _ who knows? Wheldon still plans to take a family vacation to Disney World and then to his native England to help celebrate his brother's birthday.
"I'll be back to changing diapers," he said with a smile.
Wheldon arrived at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway as a part-time driver despite consecutive Indy 500 runner-up finishes to go with his 2005 win. He was on his fourth team (the others were Andretti, Ganassi and Panther Racing), in part because of a lack of sponsorship money.
"I feel I have the talent to be in a full-time situation," he said. "I like this team. I'm fed up with changing teams. I'd like to stay in one place for the rest of my career, but I don't want to get frustrated about things I can't control."
Wheldon signed with Herta, a former teammate at Andretti-Green Racing and long-time friend who worked out a one-race collaboration deal with owner Sam Schmidt.
"I told him it was important that I be in a strong car," Wheldon said. "Bryan is a man of his word and that's a rarity in this profession. When he said he'd give me a fast car I never doubted that. This is like a full-time program with just one race. There are quality people here."
Added Herta: "I didn't sign him just because he's my buddy. I signed him because he's the best driver at this place."
Wheldon proved it down the stretch by conserving fuel while staying in contention.
"They did everything in their power to give me the fastest racecar possible" Wheldon said, "and I was going to drive it like I stole it until I saw the checkered flag.
"We took on the might of Penske and Ganassi and won. It's tough to beat those big teams. It's a testament to our team."
Wheldon is the first driver in the 100-year history of the Indy 500 to win with just one lap led. Joe Dawson set the previous record of two in 1912.
"I'm happy for Dan," veteran driver Tony Kanaan said. "He got thrown out the window (by not getting a full-time ride). A lot of people said he wasn't good enough."
Hildebrand tried to show he was good enough to become the first rookie to win the Indy 500 since Helio Castroneves in 2001. He had a large lead over Wheldon entering Turn 4 of the last lap, but got wide while passing Charlie Kimball and hit the wall, destroying the right side of his car. He finished with two wheels two seconds behind Wheldon and three seconds ahead of third-place Graham Rahal.
"Panther Racing deserved to win," Hildebrand said. "It's heartbreaking not to give this to them. The stats showed we were second. We had better than that. It's tough."
Race officials reviewed the finish to see if Wheldon passed Hildebrand under a yellow flag. By IndyCar rule, drivers can't pass under a caution. Castroneves edged Paul Tracy in win the 2002 race when officials ruled a late caution had come out just before Tracy passed him.
Wheldon's victory stood.
"We came here with a rookie driver and everybody said we were going to have trouble," Panther Racing co-owner John Barnes said. "But I can tell you that J.R. did a great job. He drove to a fuel number I didn't think was attainable. We're so proud of him and the people at Panther Racing."
Panther Racing has finished second in four straight Indy 500s _ with Vitor Meira in 2008, Wheldon in 2009 and '10, and Hildebrand.
Veteran Tony Kanaan finished fourth after starting 22nd. He passed 49 cars while pushing into the top 10, dropping back to 24th after a bad pit top (he missed his pit when another car got in the way), then rallying.
"We had a good car," he said. "We drove hard all day. It was a lot of fun."
For much of the race Target Chip Ganassi teammates Scott Dixon and Dario Franchitti dominated. Dixon led the most laps, at 73. Franchitti, the defending Indy 500 winner, was second with 51.
Dixon set an instant tone by passing pole winner Alex Tagliani on Turn One and leading the first six laps. Tagliani passed him back for his first-ever Indy 500 lead but couldn't hold it. He hit the wall 53 laps from the finish while trying to pass, and finished 28th.
"Early on we had a good car, then it became loose," Tagliani said. "That's a shame because I thought we had a shot."
Dixon and Franchitti combined to lead 124 of the first 164 laps. Then fuel concerns rocked the leaders. Seven different drivers led in the final 36 laps, including Graham Rahal, Danica Patrick, Bertrand Baguette and Oriol Servia.
Franchitti was second in the closing laps, but had to slow down to conserve fuel. At one point team officials told him he had to average 4.4 miles a gallon to make it, which was about 175 mph.
"You're dreaming," Franchitti said. He was right. He finished 12th.
Dixon finished sixth.
In the end, though, it was about Wheldon, who is still dealing with the recent diagnosis that his mother has Alzheimer's. He's become a spokesman for the Alzheimer's Association. He also became a leader who pushed his team to an achievement few thought possible.
"One of the things Dan did was bring a belief we could win," Herta said. "Based on our previous efforts, we had no business believing we could. But he made us believe."
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