INDIANAPOLIS (CBS / AP) — One turn. One stinkin’ turn.
JR Hildebrand was one turn away from winning the Indianapolis 500 on his very first try. Then, within sight of the checkered flag, the 23-year-old from Sausalito made the ultimate rookie mistake.
Leading by almost 4 seconds with a lap to go, Hildebrand skidded high into the wall on the final turn, and Dan Wheldon drove past to claim an improbable second Indy 500 win this past Sunday.
“It’s a helpless feeling,” Hildebrand said. “It’s just a bummer.”
Wheldon, the 2005 winner but without a full-time ride this season, appeared headed for his third straight runner-up finish when Hildebrand took the white flag needing only to make it through the last of 200 laps around the 2 1/2-mile speedway.
The first three turns went smoothly. Then Hildebrand came up on another rookie, Charlie Kimball, in the fourth turn. Instead of backing off, Hildebrand moved to the outside to make the pass and lost control, slamming the wall to a collective gasp from the crowd of 250,000.
“I caught him in the wrong piece of track,” Hildebrand said. “I got up in the marbles and that was it.”
Hildebrand’s crumpled machine slid across the finish line, still hugging the wall, in second place. While Wheldon celebrated, IndyCar officials reviewed the video to see if Wheldon passed the wrecked machine before the caution lights went on. He clearly did, and Hildebrand’s team, Panther Racing, said it would not protest.
“I just felt a lot of relief. It’s an incredible feeling,” Wheldon said. “I never gave up.”
He took the traditional swig of milk and headed off on a triumphant lap around the speedway — a lap that Hildebrand should have been taking.
Instead, the Bay Area youngster stopped by the garage to get a look at his mangled car, which was hauled through Gasoline Alley instead of being wheeled into Victory Lane. He’s now in the company of athletes such as Jean Van de Velde, who squandered a three-shot lead on the 72nd hole of the 1999 British Open, and Lindsey Jacobellis, whose wipeout at the 2006 Winter Olympics cost her a certain gold medal.
They had it in the bag — then threw it all away.
“I’m just frustrated. It’s not because we came in here with the expectation of winning and we didn’t,” Hildebrand said. “I felt like I just made a mistake and it cost our boys. I guess that’s why rookies don’t win the Indianapolis 500 a whole lot and we’ll be back next year, I guess.”
The 100th anniversary of America’s most famous race was dominated much of the day by Chip Ganassi’s top two drivers, defending champ Dario Franchitti and 2008 winner Scott Dixon.
But after a series of late pit stops, things really got interesting. Second-generation racer Graham Rahal spent some time up front. Danica Patrick claimed the lead but was had to stop for fuel with nine laps to go. Belgium driver Bertrand Baguette had already gotten past Patrick, but he didn’t have enough fuel, either.
When Baguette went to the pits with three laps to go, the lead belonged to Hildebrand. All he had to do was make it to the end.
He came up one turn short. One stinkin’ turn.
“My disappointment is for the team,” Hildebrand said. “We should’ve won the race.”
(Copyright 2011 by CBS San Francisco. The Associated Press contributed to this report. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)