INDIANAPOLIS – Rookie JR Hildebrand threw away the 100th anniversary edition of the Indianapolis 500 on Sunday, crashing on the very last corner of the last lap in the most dramatic, spectacular and heartbreaking finish in the great race’s proud history.
Hildebrand was poised to become the first rookie since Helio Castroneves in 2001 to drink the famous milk as he survived a wild afternoon to enter the final lap clear of Dan Wheldon.
However, heading into the final corner – and with his team officials and pit crew already raising their arms in celebration – Hildebrand lost control of his No.4 National Guard car for Panther Racing and smashed into the wall.
Even then, he nearly won in any case, as his mangled vehicle slid along the wall toward the finish line. But the impact of the crash caused him to slow enough for Wheldon to surge past in the final 200 yards.
While Wheldon celebrated, the result had yet to be made official. In question is whether Hildebrand was still the leader when the caution came out. Technically, the field is frozen when a caution comes out, meaning officials could have ruled Wheldon's pass of Hildebrand didn't count. After a review, officials ruled Wheldon passed Hildebrand after the caution lights came on.
“I just felt a lot of relief,” said Wheldon, who won for the second time following his victory in 2005. “I have been the runner-up twice. There are a lot of great storylines today.”
But there was no bigger story than that of Hildebrand, the 23-year-old Californian whose destiny was so cruelly snatched away at the last moment.
Hildebrand was left in stunned silence at the end, hands on his knees in the infield, barely able to comprehend the misfortune which befell him.
"I knew we were really tight on the fuel coming to the end," Hildebrand explained. "I had the spotters in my ear telling me the guys were coming at us really hard. I was hanging on a bit.
"I caught him [Charlie Kimball] at just the wrong time," he continued. "I went to the high side because I didn't want to slow down too much, I got up in the marbles and that was it.
"I didn't come here expecting to have a chance to win the Indy 500 but we did, and that is why it is frustrating."
After leaders Scott Dixon and then Danica Patrick were forced to pit for refueling, Hildebrand overtook Dario Franchitti to give himself a shot at victory. But it was not to be.
Danica Patrick led the race with less than 10 laps to go but had to pit for fuel. She wound up 10th.