INDIANAPOLIS – JR Hildebrand will go down in Indianapolis 500 folklore, just not in the way he had dared to start to dream he would as he entered the final turn of lap 200 through eyes already starting to mist.
The rookie champ became the rookie chump on Sunday as the 23-year-old Californian spectacularly threw away the 100th anniversary edition of the great race with a mental meltdown at the very last potential pitfall of them all.
Dan Wheldon's name will enter the record books as the winner, but this will forever be known as Hildebrand's race, the afternoon when a young man had destiny within his clutches yet somehow managed to toss it away like worn tires.
It had already been a day packed with drama, with Danica Patrick floating the tantalizing possibility of a female winner when she led late before being forced to refuel. Patrick conceded the lead to unknown Bertrand Baguette, who was in front until he had to pit for fuel with only three laps to go.
That opened the door for Hildebrand and his great disaster. His No. 4 National Guard car for Panther Racing was desperately low on fuel but had just enough to make it to the finish. Hildebrand's concern over his gas status caused him to try to lap Charlie Kimball on the outside on the last turn instead of holding back and then accelerating into the home straight.
It is a choice he will rue and replay for years to come, irrespective of whatever success he enjoys in open-wheel racing. Taking the outside line put him into the treacherous marbles, which robbed him of control as he plowed into the fence.
"Once I hit the marbles it was all over," said Hildebrand. "It was a horrible feeling, having no power over what was going to happen.
"There were some choice words going through my head fast and frequently. And they continued. It was my mistake and I have to deal with that.
"It was an incredible opportunity to get on the big stage and we most certainly should have won it. Is it a move I would do again? No. The only reason I did it was because it had worked at different stages earlier."
Hildebrand still managed to finish in second place, as his mangled vehicle slid along the wall and across the finish line, but not before the fast-advancing Wheldon was able to shoot past him.
Confusion then reined as Indy officials insisted the Panther team had lodged a formal complaint, hoping to be granted the race win on a technicality. Hildebrand's crash caused the caution flag to come out – and he was leading at the time of the caution – and a theory emerged that he could be awarded victory. But Panther denied protesting the result, which still was not official more than two hours after the race.
Rumors around Indianapolis Motor Speedway suggested the decision could rumble on for hours or even days, yet any moves to overturn Wheldon's win would be nothing short of a travesty.
The protest was reminiscent of the controversial 2002 race, where Paul Tracy was denied victory after it was ruled his pass of Helio Castroneves on the 199th lap came after the waving of a caution flag.
On this day, Wheldon drank the famous milk for the second time, having previously won in 2005, yet this one was surely extra sweet. The 32-year-old sat out the first four races of the IndyCar season after being bumped from his previous ride with Panther, which opted for Hildebrand instead. Wheldon's car was strong all day, although until Hildebrand's blunder it looked as if Wheldon would finish second at Indy for the third time in succession.
"You have to get to the bricks first," said the Florida-based English driver. "Crazy things happen at Indy, and that is what makes it so special. It was just a huge relief for me to get the win."
The controversial three-abreast starting formation and double-file restart did not cause the expected panic and actually contributed to some thrilling racing. Graham Rahal made the most of some strong restarts to finish in third, while Tony Kanaan came in fourth after starting in 22nd.
Patrick's performance was impressive, but her late pit stop pushed her down to 10th. It is still not known if she will return to Indy next year or accept a more lucrative offer to race in NASCAR.
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