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Dan Wheldon Wins Indy 500 When J.R. Hildebrand Hits Wall in Final Lap

Dan Wheldon took advantage of a big break late in the Indianapolis 500 race on Sunday when the leader, J.R. Hildebrand, crashed into the wall on Turn 4 in the final lap.

Dan Wheldon, 2011 Indianapolis 500 winner
Dan Wheldon, 2011 Indianapolis 500 winner

Veteran IndyCar driver Dan Wheldon literally seized victory from the jaws of defeat as the race leader, J.R. Hildebrand, crashed into the Turn 4 wall heading into the homestretch with only about a quarter-mile to go.  Hildebrand's final-lap mishap allowed Wheldon to overtake him and take the checkered flag today in the 100th Anniversary of the Indianapolis 500. 

It was Wheldon's second win in the "Great Spectacle in Racing." He won his first Indy 500 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 2005, driving at the time for Andretti-Green Racing.

Wheldon looked as shocked as everybody else, drenching himself in the traditional milk bath in victory lane. "I just kept pushing," Wheldon said. "I never gave up. It's just an incredible day," he said, holding back tears. Wheldon started in sixth position, and is the first driver to win the Indy 500 race outside of the front row since 2005, ironically the year Wheldon last won it

Hildebrand, who has but one win to his credit in IndyCar, and that was in 2008 in the developmental Firestone Indy Lights Series, took over the lead with just three laps remaining in the historic 200-lap race. He appeared to be on the brink of becoming the first rookie driver to win an Indy 500 race when he lost control while trying to pass Charlie Kimball's lapped car on the final turn in the final lap and slammed into the wall.

Hildebrand, driving for Panther Racing, chose to stay out and conserve fuel while others in contention pitted, including defending Indy champion Dario Franchitti of Chip Ganassi Racing, whom Hildebrand passed with only a few laps remaining in the race. Franchitti led for a good part of the second half of the Great American Race and was one of eight drivers who held the lead over the final 36 laps. Over those high-pressured finishing laps, Franchitti, Oriol Servia, Graham Rahal, Scott Dixon, Danica Patrick, Bertrand Baguette, Hildebrand and Wheldon, at the very end, took turns holding the lead as this year's 100th Anniversary 500 race wound down.

The 22-year-old Rahal, the son of 1986 Indy champion Bobby Rahal, started the race on the 10th row in 29th position and found himself ahead of the pack on the lead lap with just 30 laps (75 miles) to go. Rahal, one of three Ganassi drivers in the race (Dixon, Franchitti and Rahal), finished third, behind Hildebrand's severely damaged car, made up the most ground on the grid in the race, moving up 26 spots from his starting position.

Said the young Rahal after the race: "It felt great today. I was just trying to stay out of trouble, and it paid off."

Tony Kanaan, who is considered one of the best drivers never to have won an Indianapolis 500, moved up 18 positions from 22nd to finish fourth, seven seconds back of the winner, Wheldon. This was Kanaan's 10th Indy 500, eight of which were representing Andretti-Green Racing (now Andretti Autosport). The 36-year-old Brazilian represented KV Racing Technologies in this year's race.

Spainard Oriol Servia of Newman/Haas Racing, started the race in third position on the front row and ended up fifth. Team Penske's Dixon finished sixth, making it the first time since 2005 that a Penske or Ganassi driver hasn't finished in the top five.

Patrick, who is still with the Andretti team and one of four female drivers to qualify in the 33-car starting field, led nine laps in today's race and was hopeful of stealing away her first Indy win in seven tries and second IndyCar win overall using fuel strategy, but the strategy failed and she finished a disappointing 10th.  It was only the second time since her 500 debut in 2005 (incidentally, also won by Wheldon when Patrick ran low on fuel and fell out of the lead with only a handful of laps left to complete the 500 miles).

"I come here to win," Patrick said in disgust to reporters after the race.

The IndyCar points leader, Will Power, one of the Penske drivers, fell out of the race early when he left the pits missing a tire in the early part of the race. The mishap cost him greatly, pushing him back in the field for a 14th-place finish.

There were five cautions in the race, and seven drivers were knocked out of the race because of contact: Townsend Bell, Ryan Briscoe, James Hinchcliffe, the pole-sitter Alex Tagliani, E.J. Viso, Jay Howard and Takuma Sato, who started 10th.