Dan Wheldon was in just the right position at the right time, slingshotting past Danica Patrick with a bit more than five laps to go and winning the 89th Indianapolis 500 Mile Race over Vitor Meira and Bryan Herta.
With tears in his eyes Wheldon proclaimed, "This is a dream come true; this is the best race in the world! I've wanted to race here since I was a kid and my first Indy memories are of seeing a photograph of Jimmy Clark here." Wheldon is the first driver from the United Kingdom to win the Greatest Spectacle in Racing since Graham Hill in 1966.
In crossing the finish line first, the Briton gave an Indy win to Michael Andretti, a man denied a trip to Victory Lane in every one of his 14 appearances as a driver. Michael led more laps than any other racer, 426 laps, but never the one that counted.
"This is unbelievable," Andretti proclaimed. "Dan drove a hell of a race, a smart race and gave up track position for the big payoff at the end. We're all really proud of him." Standing in Victory Lane, Andretti reached for the hug of milk. "I need a sip. I never tasted milk so good," he exclaimed.
"This race is so difficult," Wheldon piped up. "There were so many good cars out there and people are so close. I was certainly confident in my equipment; we've got good cars and we're constantly developing them," he remarked of his #26 Klein Tools/Jim Beam Dallara/Honda/Firestone challenger.
"The car worked so well in traffic but perhaps not as well on my own. I was able to catch Danica" after the rookie got by him on the end of the penultimate yellow (lap 190 restart). Patrick held the lead until lap 194 when Wheldon returned the favor in Turn 1, pulling away to take a third of a second advantage.
It was all for nothing, though when Sebastien Bourdais made contact with the Turn 3 SAFER barrier bringing out the final of eight cautions and ending the 200-lap contest under yellow flag conditions.
Overshadowed by his Rahal Letterman Racing teammates all month long, Meira quietly drove to second place but still couldn't steal the limelight from Patrick, his rookie squadmate. His team, he claimed, gave him the runner- up slot with his #17 Menards/Johns Manville Panoz/Honda.
During the event, "Right after a yellow, something hit my hand from Wheldon's car. Of course it was just a piece of debris of the previous crash. I felt a little tick and then, when I took off my glove it was all bloody and everything."
Meira claimed he drove with a hand and a half for much of the race. "What made the difference today was my crew. Every single pit stop, I gained between one to three positions. That made my job really, really easy," Meira revealed. "The car wasn't the best in traffic but again, today was a good day."
Acknowledged as the supreme tester amongst the four Andretti Green drivers, Bryan Herta had "an up and down day" en route to third place. "We struggled to get to the front on our own and we just kind of got mired in the pack."
Getting "busted for speeding in the pit lane" with his #7 XM Satellite Radio Dallara/Honda, Herta figured "that's going to screw everything up, but it put us in position where we could do something different on pit strategy. Michael was in the pits today with George Klotz and I think those guys made the right call for me to get up in the top few positions."
Patrick finished fourth, nearly on fumes. After stalling her #16 Argent Mortgage/Pioneer Panoz/Honda on the first pit stop, the Beloit, WI native fell back to sixteenth and had to fight back. In the process of finding her way back to the front, Patrick led three times for a total of 19 laps, the first woman to lead at Indianapolis in the 89-year history of this race.
"I'm relieved to finish but thought I could get it at the end," before Wheldon made his pass. "I'm so proud of my team; we had a fast car all day," Patrick stated. "I did make some mistakes: I stalled it, went back to 16th and people were checking up a little bit on the restart toward the end with about 50 or so to go. It seemed like they were going slowly and checking up, anyway, because I spun.
"I can't believe my car didn't completely demolish because I got hit like twice. Spun it around, I can't believe I kept the engine running," she said, shaking her head. Easily the crowd favorite, when Danica took over at the front of the pack on lap 172, the stands erupted and no one was left in their seats.
Not even thinking about the historical achievement, Patrick shrugged her shoulders and said, "I'm just racing. I don't know but I just don't think about it." On the lap 190 restart, "My engineer Ray [Leto] told me we needed to have the restart of the century and I think we had it.
"It was pretty good. Because we were on a different fuel strategy, saving fuel had to override everything else. I was getting a little bit loose at the end and the car was starting to move around a little bit." Once Wheldon made his pass, Patrick settled in to get to the finish as both Meira and Herta showed her their rear wings.
Fifth place went to Buddy Lazier, the 1996 Indy 500 winner who had a nasty wall shunt on Friday during the hour-long Carburetion Day run. His Byrd Brothers/Panther Racing squad put the #95 Dallara/Chevrolet back together again within the day and he was thereby allowed to begin the race from his assigned ninth spot on the 33-car grid.
"I knew we had a chance to win this race, but in the last ten laps I broke the left front wing. I had contact with Sharp but we didn't come in because we didn't want to lose track position. Then we had contact again with another car blocking me," Lazier explained. "So without the contacts I think I would have been able to make a better run of it at the end."
This was a one-off ride for the Vail, CO resident but Lazier is hopeful of continuing, or at least doing a few more races with the Panther team. "We keep working on it. Certainly my agenda is to be back full-time in Indy car racing and hopefully this will help."
After leading twice for 15 laps, Dario Franchitti ended up sixth today with his #27 ArcaEx Dallara/Honda. "I am disappointed," the Scot declared. "We were looking quite good until Bourdais ran me into the wall. We had a lot of turbulence and couldn't make our way through it. You've got to look for a silver lining and Dan winning is the silver lining," he said.
Given a drive-through penalty for blocking Buddy Lazier, Scott Sharp persevered to take seventh at the checkers with his #8 Delphi Fernandez Panoz/Honda. Still, the veteran was enthusiastic about his day.
"The car was just tremendous," Sharp exclaimed. "We carved our way all the way up to the top three and really, we were just riding. And for some reason we chased the car after that a bit. We got really tight in traffic a lot," he revealed.
Polesitter Tony Kanaan led 54 laps but not the one he intended to, fading to eighth at the end of the day in the #11 Team 7-Eleven Dallara/Honda. The 2004 Indy Racing League IndyCar Series champion picked up a vibration and the exchange of Firestone Firehawk tires on the final pit stop at lap 172 didn't give Kanaan sufficient time to make up the difference.
Helio Castroneves finished ninth with the #3 Marlboro Team Penske Dallara/Toyota and gave the fans a good show of how to avoid other peoples' problems. First the Brazilian barely missed Larry Foyt's spinning car on the first caution at lap 17; later he avoided a spinning Danica Patrick on a later restart.
The two-time Indy winner couldn't have made a bid, though. "The steering was bad and I was just surviving. There was nothing we could do; we couldn't fix it because it was during the race and we just tried to keep with the strategy. Unfortunately it wasn't our day," Castroneves explained.
Rookie Ryan Briscoe avoided the walls this time out with the #33 Target/Pioneer Panoz/Toyota and brought the car home in tenth place this afternoon. "The car was just fantastic," he exulted. "After the second set of tires, we adjusted the pressure a little bit and it felt great. Our speed today could have had us on the lead lap but we were just one car back from getting our lap back.
"My goal," the Australian said, "was to get in the top 10 and have a clean race. That is what we have always done and I am so happy with the whole crew. They have done a fantastic job all month," Briscoe declared.
The 200-lap enduro started just after noon EST and ran cleanly for a full 17 laps before Larry Foyt performed a quarter spin in Turn 1 and made heavy contact at the rear of his #41 Foyt Dallara/Toyota at the SAFER barrier. The car stopped on the apron and Foyt was removed to Methodist Hospital for complaints of lower back pain. He sustained a chip fracture of his lower spine and is being held for further evaluation.
Going green on the 25th lap, the field straightened out and ran cleanly until lap 76, when A.J. Foyt IV and Bruno Junqueira came together, this time in Turn 2. The #36 Team Centrix Panoz/Honda of Junqueira made heavy contact with the SAFER barrier and slid backwards along the wall before making a second half-spin.
Junqueira was taken to Methodist, complaining of back pain as well, after running in sixth place. He sustained a concussion and fractures of the T- 12 and L-1 vertebrae, requiring surgery on Monday.
Foyt believed the Brazilian "came up" on him. Foyt's crew tried to repair the car and actually returned to the race on lap 125, only to stop later when he realized there was no good reason to flog around. "We tried to take it back out but we just weren't able to do it," Foyt said. "It takes more than 10 minutes to get the car back to where it was."
At this point, the League had asked a few cars to retire due to their inability to keep up with the pack. Jimmy Kite was gone after completing 47 laps in the #91 Ethanol/Hemelgarn Dallara/Toyota; Marty Roth parked the #25 Roth/PDM Racing Dallara/Toyota after 47 laps as well.
Darren Manning's day came to a close on lap 83 when he parked an unstable #10 Target Panoz/Toyota after finding himself sideways more than once.
Jeff Ward battled an ill-handling #22 Vision Racing Dallara/Toyota after "I got hit in Turn 2. Somebody came out and clipped my wheel, impacting the steering. It wouldn't go three inches either way so I just had to bring it in," said the eight-time motocross champ. He completed 92 laps.
Kenny Brack's #15 Argent Mortgage/Pioneer Panoz/Honda that he qualified with the best speed of the meeting left the field on lap 92. "We had a pretty good car but a little part took us out of the race. The steering wheel kept twisting in my hands and the link in the steering column came loose." The Swede said it was a three-cent part that ended his day.
Green flag racing ensued on lap 87 after cleanup from the Foyt-Junqueira dispute but lasted only until lap 113, when Richie Hearn clipped Scott Dixon, ending both the 2003 IRL champ's day and his own. Hearn took all the blame: "There was a lot of jockeying going on in front of us and I didn't see Scott. It was my fault," Hearn said. Hearn was credited with 25th place for his #70 Meijer/Coca-Cola Panoz/Chevrolet; Dixon took 24th in the #9 Target Panoz/Toyota.
Back to green on lap 120, Sam Hornish Jr. led the field as he had on five different occasions, including the first two laps. The #6 Marlboro Team Penske Dallara/Toyota driver looked poised to take his first Indy crown but then clouted the Turn 1 wall on lap 147, ending his day.
Hornish had been running side by side with Sebastien Bourdai' #37 Team Centrix Panoz/Hondas at the time, and the duo may have touched. "I felt I got pinched a bit," Hornish said. He was treated and released from the infield care center, credited with 23rd place.
When the field tried to go green again, there was contact in Turn 4 when Patrick made her infamous spin, collecting the #2 RockStar Dallara/Chevy of Tomas Enge. The Czech found the contact "unfortunate because I was having so much fun. I was trying to get by her and she ran into my car. It's really a shame," he said.
Behind the spin Enge's teammate Tomas Scheckter spun to avoid and made contact with the inside retaining wall, stopping on the spot with his #4 Pennzoil Panther Dallara/Chevy. Jeff Bucknum (#44 Investment Properties of America Dallara/Honda), Patrick Carpentier's #83 Red Bull Cheever Racing Dallara/Toyota and Jaques Lazier in the #21 Playa Del Panoz/Toyota were also involved in this melee.
After a lengthy cleanup, racing began again on lap 162 but lasted only until the 171st lap when Roger Yasukawa's #24 Racing for Kids Dallara/Honda lost its motive power. Yasukawa was already suffering from a clutch problem early in the race and, "for the second stop we had to push-start the car," he explained. "The clutch problem caused our engine to go and that was the end of our day." Yasukawa was credited with 18th.
Green flags flew again on lap 174 and racing ensued until lap 186, when Kosuke Matsuura impacted the outside retaining wall between Turns 3 and 4 with the #55 Panasonic/ARTA Panoz/Honda. "I was running in ninth and when I tried to close the gap to another car, my car started going push-loose. It was pretty edgy. I was too close to Dario [Franchitti] and hit the wall," Matsuura stated.
Was that it? Well, the remaining drivers tried to make it to the end, but Sebastien Bourdais foiled that. "When Vitor passed Danica (on lap 194) she had to back off big time and lost a lot of speed. I couldn't back off big enough to get some clean air. I lost momentum," the Frenchman explained of his situation with so many cars surrounding his Panoz/Honda.
"Lazier was probably too close to me and touched my tire and cut it. I didn't realize what was happening and started slowing down, lost the engine and then hit the wall." Bringing out caution on the final lap, Bourdais caused the race to end under yellow. He was uninjured.
This 3 hour ten-plus minute Indianapolis 500 was definitely an entertaining race for the multitude of fans in attendance, who spent most of the sunny, clear day on their feet. They got to see 27 lead changes among seven drivers, sat through eight cautions for 46 laps and likely saw the best car win the race.
Dan Wheldon's win allowed him to build a big cushion in the championship chase with 234 points to teammate Kanaan's 162. Hornish Jr. retains third place with 146 points while Herta holds fourth with 139 and Meira lies fifth with 136 points.
The Indy cars get one week's breathing time before heading for Texas Motor Speedway and the Bombardier 500K, race #6 in a 17-event calendar. Wheldon has a cushion, but he's not resting easily. "This hasn't sunk in yet," Wheldon sighed, "but this is really that special to me. It's such a proud moment. It's the proudest moment of my life and I'm sure it will be. It was just fantastic!"