INDIANAPOLIS, IN - MAY 29: Dan Wheldon of England, driver of the #98 William Rast-Curb/Big Machine Dallara Honda, celebrates in victory lane after winning the IZOD IndyCar Series Indianapolis 500 Mile Race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway on May 29, 2011 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Robert Laberge/Getty Images)
Maybe the old girl still had some tricks up her sleeve after all.
Indianapolis Motor Speedway may have undergone more facelifts and repaving than an aging Hollywood starlet, but still produces a remarkable and consistent ability to turn the script on its ear and rewrite the expected ending in dramatic fashion.
Dan Wheldon provided the punctuation to an action-packed Centennial edition of the Indy 500 by snatching victory from the jaws of defeat, as race leader J.R. Hildebrand clouted the Turn 4 wall within sight of the checkered flag. Wheldon shot the gap between Hildebrand's sliding, destroyed car and the historic yard of bricks marking the finish line to claim a 2.1 second victory in the Greatest Spectacle in Racing.
"With a Cinderella story, we took on the might of Roger Penske's organization and Chip Ganassi," Wheldon said of his tiny one-car, one-race Bryan Herta Autosport team that ran with engineering support from Sam Schmidt Racing. "This is obviously a special race because it is the 100th anniversary. I'm honored to be the winner of this particular race."
Wheldon led but a single lap in the race, but it was the one that counted most. The Cinderella story of the one-race team with the one-race driver ended up holding the glass slipper, with all due respect to Wheldon and his much-publicized predilection for shoes. He also topped off a pair of consecutive second place finishes with Panther Racing to capture his second Indy victory.
Hildebrand showed class amid the chaos, admitting that it was his own mistake passing the lapped car of Charlie Kimball that put him up into the dreaded marbles that formed along the edge of the racing line in the last turn.
"I thought 'well, I've been able to make this move around the outside before', so I went to the high side and just got caught up in the marbles and that was it," said Hildebrand, who did manage to salvage a second-place finish with his destroyed car by sliding over the finish line just ahead of Graham Rahal. "I didn't come to Indianapolis expecting to be in a position to win the Indy 500. But we were and I guess that's why it's a little bit frustrating right now."
As a packed Indianapolis Motor Speedway roared its approval. Wheldon doused himself with the traditional jug of milk, and shook his head in almost disbelief as he willed a one-race team to lead the lap that counted most.
"My emotions...I didn't have any. Right up to the point I passed J.R., I didn't. I was so focused," Wheldon said.
A veteran with a previous Indy 500 win, an IndyCar series championship, and three second-place finishes at the Brickyard under his belt, Wheldon still found himself without a ride at the beginning of the season. He announced the one-race deal with the upstart Herta organization at season-opening St. Petersburg Grand Prix. Despite a long-standing friendship with team owner Herta, dating back to the time as teammates at Andretti Green Racing in 2002, the move was considered a risk by paddock pundits to sign with such an inexperienced team. In fact, Bryan Herta Autosport that had trouble even qualifying for the big race in 2010.
"My recollection was Dan had come to a crossroads, because a couple of full-season opportunities that he thought might happen, hadn't happened," Herta said. "I knew I had to find a way to put together a program for him. Obviously you dream about winning the race, but I can't say that I realistically thought that was how it would happen.
"Dan did though. I don't know where he found the inner fortitude, and strength and belief in us. But he believed in us so much he made us believe in ourselves...you put a gunfighter in the cockpit and a bunch of solid experienced guys over the wall."
Like Cinderella, Wheldon's deal with Herta expires at midnight. Somehow, the party for the upstart team might go a little bit longer.
Herta hopes for a full-season deal with Wheldon for 2012, but even a full season of highlights might have trouble topping that twirl with an older lady Sunday afternoon. That is what makes the Indianapolis Motor Speedway so magical.