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Hildebrand comes up one turn short at Indy 500

Hildebrand comes up one turn short at Indy 500

May 30th, 2011 by PAUL NEWBERRY, AP National Writer in News

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) - One turn. One stinkin' turn.

JR Hildebrand made it through 799 of 'em without any trouble. As the young Californian approached that final left, all he had to do was keep his car off the wall, speed down the main straightaway and collect a win in the Indianapolis 500 on his very first try.

Instead, Hildebrand made the sort of colossal blunder that will forever link him to the Jean Van de Veldes of the sporting world.

He had it in the bag - and threw it all away.

"It's just a bummer," Hildebrand said.

The 23-year-old rookie slammed into the wall on the fourth turn, and Dan Wheldon sped on by before the caution lights came on to claim his second Indy 500 victory Sunday.

But this one, much like Paul Lawrie's triumph over Van de Velde at the 1999 British Open, will be remembered for the guy who lost. And how he lost. Van de Velde went to the last hole with a three-stroke lead and made triple-bogey. Hildebrand took the white flag with a lead of nearly 4 seconds and couldn't make it through the final corner without crashing.

His battered car still managed to slide across the line in second place, but that was little consolation.

After climbing out, Hildebrand waved weakly to the crowd and bent over, his hands on his knees, probably hoping it was all just a bad dream.

No such luck.

Wheldon whooped it up on the radio, then pulled into Victory Lane for a milk-chugging celebration. For Hildebrand, there was nothing but agony.

"It's obviously unfortunate, but that's Indianapolis," said Wheldon, who finished second the past two years. "That's why it's the greatest spectacle in racing. You never now what's going to happen."

This might've been the whackiest one yet - and that's saying something, considering this was the 100th anniversary of the first 500.

After the usual suspects dominated much of the day - Ganassi teammates Scott Dixon and Dario Franchitti combined to lead 124 of the 200 laps - things really got interesting at the end as the teams plotted fuel strategy and made their final stops.

Danica Patrick ran up front for 10 laps but didn't have enough fuel to hang on. Little-known Bertrand Baguette of Belgium claimed the lead but also had to make a late pit stop. Finally, it was Hildebrand surging to the front, with enough gas in the tank to make it to the end.

If only he had made it through that final corner.

Hildebrand was faced with a choice when he came up on another rookie, Charlie Kimball, going much slower as they approached the fourth turn. The prudent thing would've been to back off and tuck in behind Kimball until they were on the main straightaway. Then Hildebrand could've gone on by to take the checkered flag.

Instead, showing his inexperience, Hildebrand decided to stay on the gas and go around on the outside. That put him into "the marbles," the tiny particles of rubber that gather near the wall, making that part of the track especially slick.

He never had a chance.

"Is it a move that I would do again?" Hildebrand said. "No."

No kidding. As Hildebrand's car smashed the wall with a nearly head-on thud, a collective gasp went up from the crowd of 250,000. He managed to pull himself together quickly enough to stay on the gas, his crippled car hugging the wall as it sputtered toward the finish line.

But Wheldon went on past, crossed first by 2.1 seconds and claimed another spot on the Borg-Warner Trophy.

Hildebrand will have to wait.

Who knows if he'll ever get this close again?

"My disappointment is for the team," Hildebrand said. "We should've won the race."

Wheldon led only one lap all day - the one that mattered. Still, he was a worthy champion, having won at Indy in 2005 along with capturing a series championship. Despite that success, the Brit found himself without a ride after last season, a stunner that had more to do with sponsorship than credentials.

Replaced at Panther Racing - by Hildebrand, of all people - Wheldon sat out the first four races of the year. That gave him time to hang out with his wife and two young children, while also dealing with the burden of his mother being diagnosed with Alzheimer's. But he longed to get back behind the wheel, and when May rolled around he landed a one-race-only deal with a fledgling team put together by retired driver Bryan Herta.

They came up with a winning combination, which may well lead to a bigger gig.

For now, though, there are no guarantees - even for the Indy 500 champion.

"I think my contract expires at midnight," Wheldon said, managing a smile.

Patrick might have been racing at the Indy 500 for the final time, with speculation swirling that she'll bolt to NASCAR in 2012. If that's the case, she nearly went out with a bang, putting a car that wasn't all that fast in front of everyone else with the laps winding down.

It harkened back to 2005, when Patrick took a late lead in her riveting Indy debut but had to back off the throttle to conserve fuel. Wheldon roared on past for his first win, while she settled for fourth.

This time, she wasn't even that close. Patrick gave up the lead with 11 laps to go, had to go to the pits for fuel and wound up 10th.

"It's more and more depressing when I don't win the race," said Indy's leading lady.

Graham Rahal finished third, followed by hard-charging Tony Kanaan, who came all the way from the 22nd starting spot to contend for his first 500 win, just a year after leaving Michael Andretti's team. Dixon was fifth, while Franchitti lost speed in the closing laps and slipped all the way to 12th.

Pole-sitter Alex Tagliani led 20 laps but ran into handling problems that eventually sent him into the wall. He finished 28th.

Roger Penske has won more 500s than any other car owner, but the Captain's team capped a disappointing month with a grim performance on race day.

On the very first stop, Will Power drove out of the pits with a loose left rear wheel, which flew off before he got back on the track. He wound up 14th, the best of Penske's three drivers.

Helio Castroneves, hoping for a record-tying fourth Indy win, started 16th and spent more time trying to stay on the lead lap than leading the race. Ryan Briscoe's day ended with he got tangled up with Townsend Bell, sending them both into the wall.

"This is a great place," Penske said. "But it's a tough place to win."

Just ask the powerhouse Ganassi organization. Dixon won in 2008, started from the middle of the front row and appeared to have the strongest car. But he criticized his team's game plan, saying it led to an unnecessary late stop for refueling that cost him his second victory.

"I don't really know how to say this other than to say that it was completely stupid," Dixon said.

Well, imagine how Hildebrand felt.

He only had to make it through one more turn.

One stinkin' turn.