A centennial running of the Indianapolis 500 that threatened to be a by-the-numbers Target Chip Ganassi Racing dominated affair, but a late twist of fuel mileage and a last lap that will go down in history made sure Dan Wheldon's second Indy triumph was one to be remembered.
Wheldon's Indy ride was – currently – a one off deal with Bryan Herta Autosport – but the 2005 Indy 500 winner is something of Brickyard specialist, coming to BHA after two years with Panther Racing including a pair of runner-up finishes at Indy. Unsuprisingly, starting from Sixth, Wheldon was a factor in the top five for much of the day, but didn't lead the race until the very last metres of the very last lap after rookie JR Hildebrand had crashed out of the lead on the final turn.
For much of the race Ganassi teammates Dario Franchitti and Scott Dixon had dominated the race. Dixon, starting from the middle of the front row actually led across the line to start the race after pole-sitter Alex Tagliani misjudged his acceleration point.
However, the Canadian, who had paced qualifying pole day as well as many of the practice sessions, took less than ten laps to put his Sam Schmidt Motorsport no.77 car back in the lead and start pulling away from Dixon, Townsend Bell and Wheldon, an order that survived until the first caution on lap 21 when Takuma Sato slapped the wall on the exit of turn one.
The KV Racing Technology retirement list was soon doubled when E.J. Viso tried to go three wide with James Hinchcliffe and Jay Howard on the approach to turn one, but as Viso tried to move towards the inside for the corner – out of the treacherous high line – he clipped Hinchcliffe, sliding first to the inside of the track before the centrifugal force of oval racing drew the Lotus green and yellow liveried car into the outside wall. Though the accident offered to usher in a crash filled race, the double file restarts caused few other problems, while still delivering two, three and even four wide racing down the front straight, and plenty of passing into turn one.
A more dangerous place – as it often is at Indianapolis – was pitlane. Will Power's chance to win were all but deleted at the first pitstop when he left without the left-rear wheel attached properly – despite the frantic gesticulations of the tyre changer on that corner. It was a similar story for Jay Howard to bring out the race's third yellow flag, though the Essex man's right-rear waited until the acceleration lane to part company, spearing Howard into the Armco for a slow-speed retirement.
Howard's end began a hundred laps that Sam Schmidt will likely want to forget. Tagliani began to fade from the front of the race, battling a loose car and cooling issues that had the team tearing at the bodywork. However, while it might have cured any temperature issues, the wounded Dallara was also down on speed, and on lap 135 Tagliani was lapped by Franchitti, the man who had taken his place at the front, swapping the lead with Scott Dixon.
Tagliani's race came to its anti-climactic end after contact with the wall on the exit of turn four. He had moved up a groove to let the lead lap car of JR Hildebrand by, but caught off line, the near-gravitational pull of the wall brought contact – light by Indy standards – but enough to bend the fragile front suspension.
Schmidt's final blow came shortly after the restart, when Townsend Bell and Ryan Briscoe tangled in turn one. Bell – a man who has made a habit of excelling in one of Indy rides – had been a top ten driver all race, but he too became an indirect victim of the high line, though his error was trying too hard to avoid it, and cutting off Briscoe's low line, pulling them both into the wall. The crash also capped off a horror of a day for Team Penske. Power never made up the lap lost early, while Helio Castroneves – looking to join Indy's top table with four 500 wins – was never a factor in the top ten, let alone of the race lead.
That was the final caution of the race and fell in the window of uncertainty in regards to fuel mileage, and the range of strategies the two SSM related cautions brought out ignited interest in the race.
Almost the entire field had pitted under the caution brought out by Tagliani, but Franchitti had stayed out but now opted to pit from the lead under the Bell/Briscoe yellow flag and was followed in by a cluster of cars including fellow lead lapper Hildebrand. The stop left them marginally short by most calculations, but with there being littler reason to expect the final 35 laps to run caution free, well within range of a fuel mileage win to match last year's race.
The stop dropped Franchitti down to tenth on the restart, behind the bulk of the lead lap field that had opted to stay out, despite having little or no chance of making it to the end of the race on fuel.
The shuffle put several drivers at the front of the field, who had spent much of the race in the lower reaches of the lead lap. Graham Rahal led from the restart, but was quickly overhauled by Scott Dixon – the Kiwi had stayed out on both cautions, the other end of the strategy spectrum from his Ganassi teammate, but Dixon was finally forced to give up track position in the first flurry of final pitstops, pitting on lap 179.
Also stopping were Wheldon, Rahal and Oriol Servia, the Spaniard who had enjoyed a quiet race in the top five after starting on the outside of the front row. Others stayed out. Danica Patrick led ten laps before being being passed by Bertrand Baguette in turn one.
The Belgian has been able to get some of the mileage in the field all race, taking the lead for a fleeting moment earlier in the race during a green flag pitstop cycle. Driving for Rahal–Letterman he looked set to win, keeping up his speed while others, crucially including Dario Franchitti, were falling away.
As the racing became increasingly breathless as the lead changed hands and the order shuffled, Baguette pitted, putting JR Hildebrand in the lead. Like Baguette Hildebrand had led earlier in the race by staying out longer under green, and after pitting wth Franchitti under the final caution had stretched out his fuel, just far enough.
And fuel mileage was not a problem.
Hildebrand entered turn four for the final time with little more than a straight to go before a rookie win for the ages, but first had to negotiate Charlie Kimball. Kimball stayed low, and Hildebrand went high. Just as Tagliani had, when Hildebrand was the man in the low line he drifted up, heartbreakingly smashing into the wall with only yards to go.
Either momentum or determination pushed Hildebrand's heavily damaged car across the line, but it was only enough to be second, as Wheldon swept past on the finish straight to take the checkered flag to score an emotion second victory. The race end was made all the more ironic as Wheldon had been forced out of the Panther Racing seat over the off-season.
Rahal finished third, ahead of Tony Kanaan in the only surviving Lotus liveried car. Scott Dixon finished sixth – slowing in the final laps, one place ahead of Baguette. Franchitti was the final man on the lead lap in twelfth having to pit on the penultimate lap as the same economy issues that ended his pole day qualifying run struck in the race.