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WHELDON WINS HIS SECOND INDY 500 IN DRAMATIC FASHION
May 29th 2011 - INDIANAPOLIS, INDIANA May 29, 2011:   By: Mark W. Theisen The late Sid Collins, for years the radio voice of the Indianapolis 500, always said it takes 500 miles to win the race and once again the sages’ word proved true as it was anybody’s 500 with 10 miles to go and it was Dan Wheldon, the 2005 Indianapolis 500 champion, roaring by a wrecked J.R. Hildebrand who was within sight of winning the race as a rookie to emerge as the surprise winner of the 100th Anniversary 500 today at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

For the second straight year fuel mileage and strategy set the stage for a dramatic finish to the race and it was Hildebrand’s Panther Racing, who has finished second in the last three 500s, that emerged with what was the perfect plan to get their driver to the finish line ahead of the rest of the field but that ended when Hildebrand had to go high up on the track in the final corner of the final lap to avoid a faster car and then hit tire debris or “marbles” and slammed into the wall opening the door for Wheldon who dissected the now disabled car of Hildebrand and that of another lapped car to post the surprise for his Bryan Herta Autosports team.

Hildebrand nursed his wounded National Guard sponsored car across the finish line to take second with Graham Rahal in third, Tony Kanaan fourth and Oriol Servia in fifth in a wild ending to a race that had been dominated by the cars from Target Chip Ganassi and driven by defending 500 winner Dario Franchitti and Scott Dixon.

200 laps earlier Dixon roared ahead of pole winning Alex Tagliani to take the lead entering the first turn of the 95th running of the 500 in the 100th Anniversary year of the first race. 

It was questionable start to the race in that Dixon was clearly ahead of Tagliani at the start that had traditionally seen 11 rows of 33 cars start side-by-side and that was the desired effect for today’s anniversary edition but no rule exists in Indy Car Racing that guarantees the integrity of the pole sitter leading the first lap.  The cars reached the point on the track that they were told they could for the lead and it was Dixon who had the quickest reaction.

Tagliani dropped to third at the end of the first lap as Servia was also able to get past him but he began to recover and moved into second on lap 3 as Simona De Silvestro, racing with hands bandaged from burns that came out of a practice crash earlier in the month, brushed the wall in the fourth turn and headed to the pits for repairs.  The spirited De Silvestro could not recover from the damage her car after several pit stops and retired from the race on lap 44 after being many laps down.

Tagliani began to reel in Dixon and took the lead on lap 8 completing the pass coming down the front straightaway, the first time he had led a lap at Indianapolis in his three career starts.

Photo by Steve Burzysnki, Bronco's Pitstop Editor and PhotographerOn lap 21 Takuma Sato got out of the groove in turn one and brushed the concrete retaining wall between turns one and two bringing out the first of what would be a seven caution period race.

One of the questions of how Tagliani would fare in the race after dominating practice and qualifying was his pits stops however his Sam Schmidt Motorsports team quickly silenced the critics by sending their driver out first after the pits stops that ensued after the caution came out.

Team Penske, the winner of fifteen Indy 500s began to have troubles early on in the race as Will Power, the current Indy Racing League point leader left the pits without his left rear tire and hand to go around and make a second stop.  He was not penalized for the incident but after losing one lap in the process was never a factor in the race finishing 14th.

Dixon, Wheldon, Servia and Franchitti followed Tagliani out of the pits as racing resumed on lap 27 but he could only lead one lap before Dixon moved to the front as E.J. Viso went high in turn one to pass James Hinchcliffe on lap 28 with the two cars making contact.  Viso hit the wall hard ending his day as the second caution flag quickly followed the first.

The tightly bunched field on the restart was the result of a new rule this year in the Indy Car League that requires side-by-side restarts following a caution period and the results of the first attempt at this new rule in Indianapolis produced the expected close quarter racing and in the end it brought out a quick yellow.

With pits stops just being completed all the front running cars stayed on the track and Dixon led Tagliani, Townsend Bell, Franchitti and Servia on the restart on lap 33.  Tagliani was able to get around Dixon on lap 34 but could only rule the front for one lap before surrendering the point back to Dixon.

Franchitti than began to assert his power passing Tagliani on lap 44 with Wheldon taking third on that same lap.  Tagliani was now fourth and his car did not look as trim as it did when running with a full load of fuel.

Green flag pit stops began on lap 61 with Dixon giving up the lead to Franchitti just as Jay Howard crashed coming out of the pit acceleration lane following his stop.  His car seemed to wiggle while trying to blend in with the field and he hit the wall brining out yellow number 3.

With some cars having pitted under the green prior to the yellow the others had the chance to make a less stressful stop and yellow bunched up the field for another side-by-side restart.

Ed Carpenter led for one lap under the yellow before making his stop and it was Franchitti leading Dixon, Wheldon, Tagliani and Bell on the restart on lap 70.

Dixon took the lead three laps into the restart and led the next 26 laps before green flag pit stops again loomed in the future.

With a 1.3816 second lead Dixon pulled off on lap 99 to make his pit stop giving the lead to his teammate Franchitti and as had happened earlier, the yellow flag came out after nearly half the field had made their stops.

Hinchcliffe was the victim this time getting high in the turn, hitting the SAFER Barrier with his car slowing to a stop in the first turn, the day over for this rookie.

Several cars including Danica Patrick, Bertrand Baguette and Marco Andretti were caught with nearly empty fuel tanks as the pit was closed after the caution came out.  Faced with running out of fuel they were allowed to stop for a splash of fuel and no tires and were then sent out on the track to wait for the pits to re-open.

This put these cars out of sequence with the rest of the field and set up the possibility that fuel mileage could compound all the other elements that surround this race.

Hildebrand was able to lead a lap during this caution to be the first of the five rookies in the race to lead a lap at Indianapolis.

Green flag racing resumed on lap 107 with Franchitti leading followed by Servia, Marco Andretti, Carpenter and Dixon as the running order was shuffled because of the different stops.

Servia took the lead on lap 113 for his first time at the point of the 500 in three starts and led for 16 laps before a determined Franchitti closed back in to retake the lead.

Green flag pit were the order by lap 137 with Hildebrand and Baguette again leading laps before making their stops and if the race went green the rest of the way it was playing into these two drivers hands.

Some of that strategy went away when Tagliani brought out the sixth caution on lap 148 the day ending for the pole winner in a fashion that many hoped would not.   “The rear of the car continued to get loose as the race went on,” said Tagliani.  “We did all we could to correct the problem but could not and it was a struggle.  I had the car on the edge and I just could not keep it under control at the end.  It’s a shame our month had to end like this but our team did a fantastic job.”

Three laps into the restart the cars of Bell and Ryan Briscoe made contact in the first turn to bring out caution number six and now it was clear with 36 laps remaining that today’s Indianapolis 500 would become a race of fuel strategy.

That was clear when Patrick was kept on the track after pitting during the Tagliani yellow while others made second stops.  Baguette, Tomas Scheckter, Marco Andretti, Rahal and Hildebrand were also rolling the dice as was Franchitti when he dove into the pits just prior to the restart coming out on the track with those 36 laps remaining and in 11th place after leading 51 laps in the race to this point.  It was clear he and his team were in fuel conservation mode as the race resumed.

Rahal was in front after the sequence of stops was over and led when the green flag appeared trailed by Servia, Dixon, Scheckter, Tony Kanaan and Wheldon.

When Graham led his first lap he joined his father Bobby as father-son lap leaders at Indy joining a group of five other combinations that have done so in the past.

Rahal led until lap 172 surrendering the lead to Dixon and was forced to stop on lap 178 for his fuel but he was still not done yet as he led the other short pit stop teams in and thus was placed in a prime position for a shot at the win.

A lap later Dixon, Servia and Kanaan went to pit road for fuel and tires giving the lead to Patrick who was told by her team to be in a fuel conservation strategy as they hoped to get far enough ahead on the track that when they made their stop they could still emerge with the lead but she did not have the right set up on the car for her to implement that plan.

Qualifying 25th and facing starting back in the field her car was set up with more down force than those in front so as to negotiate traffic.  This left her without the straight track speed she needed to get far enough ahead and she was tracked down by Baguette on the track by lap 189 and he was now in front with Patrick and Marco Andretti taking to the pits the following lap.

While all this was happening Franchitti was making his way to the front and by lap 194 he was in second but a whopping 8.2207 seconds behind the leader.

On lap 197 Baguette’s dream ended when he had to stop for fuel giving the way to Hildebrand with just two laps remaining and with Franchitti now running nearly 5 miles an hour slower than the leader as it was clear his car was not going to make it to the end.

Hildebrand roared under the white flag with Wheldon, Dixon and Rahal behind and one lap from winning the race as a rookie.

Coming out of the fourth turn that all ended with Wheldon passing his disabled car and the race finishing under the seventh and final yellow of the race.

Replay of the finish showed that Wheldon was ahead of the Hildebrand’s car before the yellow came out and this he was rewarded with his second 500 win and first for his team owner Herta.

“I was just trying to go as hard as I could,” said a beaming Wheldon in victory lane.  “I knew it was the last lap and I was told some of those guys were struggling with fuel.  I want to thank my team; they gave me all that I needed, including fuel, to get the job done.  This is just an incredible feeling!”

Incredible indeed!  This win came in what is referred to at Indy as a one-off entry, meaning that it was a one race deal for both driver and team.  Despite being a former race winner and twice a runner-up finisher, Wheldon entered 2011 with no deal.  Honda assisted in getting him united with Herta and with the help of Sam Schmidt Motorsports a deal was put together to put him in the race.

“It was all him (Wheldon),” said Herta.  “His enthusiasm carried us.  He had the attitude and that carried over to everyone on the team.  He made us believe in everything we were doing and it worked, I don’t know how it worked but it worked.”

“When it came to the end,” Herta continued, “we wanted to give him all the fuel he needed.  We saw what the others were doing but we stuck to our plan.  I know his (Sam Schmidt’s) cars (Tagliani and Bell) did not fare as well today but without their help we would not be here talking to you as winners of this race.  In addition to their load, they took on ours and we own them a tremendous debt of gratitude.”

For Hildebrand it was truly a wide spectrum of emotions after the race.  “As a rookie I was not expected to be in this situation,” said Hildebrand, “but because of their knowledge of this race they had me in a position to win the race and for that I feel I let them down.”

“I was not entirely aware of where we were in the race until late.  I was just trying to get the car to the end when they (crew) came on the radio and told me to slow down and save fuel for the end I knew we were close and then they came on the radio and said I was leading.”

“On that final lap I was catching the 83 (Kimball – a lapped car) and I choose to pass on the high side as I did all race long but this time, because of the long stint between cautions to sweep the debris from the track  I slid into the wall.  I feel bad for the team and our sponsor the National Guard because it would have been their day on the stage, a day they truly deserved.”

“This feels good,” said Rahal, “that’s for sure.  I mean this it is all about you know?  We needed to ride the momentum and we did.  And this is obviously a lot better than the second place we had in Brazil because this is Indy.  I’m so proud of our team because of how they stuck in there after qualifying poorly.  We passed 26 cars today and that’s fantastic.”

Ironically, Rahal drives in a satellite team owned by Chip Ganassi in the first year of operation and he finished ahead of the lead team drivers Dixon and Franchitti.

Kanaan passed more cars today than anyone else, 49, and said, “We had a problem on a pit stop because of somebody else and that put us way back, but we had a good car and drove hard all day.  It was a lot of fun and I happy for Dan (Wheldon) he has been trough a lot and I know how he feels.”

Kanaan was without a firm ride for 2011 until five days prior to the season and struggled to find a sponsor deal to align him with a team.  Wheldon was released from Panther Racing last year and was not as lucky to put a full season deal together as Kanaan.  In the end it was very ironic that Wheldon beat the team that let him go last year.

After leading a race high 73 laps Dixon was disappointed with his finish.  “Between Dario (Franchitti) and myself, we had this one pretty well-covered,” said Dixon.  “We got short-fueled at the end and why we got short-fueled I don’t know.  We stopped 10 laps later than anyone else on any strategy, there’s no way we should have run out of fuel it happened and it is disappointing.”

Servia, Baguette, Scheckter, Marco Andretti and Patrick rounded out the top 10.

“That’s what you have to do here at Indy,” said Patrick when asked about the team’s strategy selection. 
“You have to take a chance because it’s win or bust here for the most part.  While its great to have a top-five finishes every weekend, Indy is about winning and that is why we did what we did.  You are given a set of circumstances each year and have to deal with them as best you can.  Hopefully one day it will be our turn.”

Wheldon is the 18th multiple winner of the 500 and set a record of he fewest number of lead laps by a winner, one.  Joe Dawson, in 1912, led two in winning the second 500 in history.  This was also the second time that a driver lost the lead of the 500 on the last lap and both times the victim was a rookie driver.  In 2006 Andretti lost the lead to Sam Hornish Jr. out of the final turn on the final lap as well.

The Penske car’s finished 16th, 17th and 27th with Power actually finishing ahead of three time 500 winner and teammate Helio Castroneves.  It was a very atypical day for the Penske contingent.

Obviously Hildebrand was the highest finishing rookie of the race and Patrick led the four woman contingent ahead of Pippa Mann, Ana Beatriz and De Silvestro.

In addition to Wheldon, Dixon, Franchitti and Castroneves, Buddy Rice the other former winner in the race finished 18th.

A dramatic end to a dramatic century at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway as Wheldon saluted his mother, afflicted with Alzheimer’s disease and dedicated his win to her and her support over his career.