St. Pete's Dan Wheldon wins dramatic Indy 500

3:52 PM, May 29, 2011   |    comments
May 29, 2011; Indianapolis, IN, USA; Indy Car Series driver Dan Wheldon celebrates after winning the 95th running of the Indy 500 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-US PRESSWIRE
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Indianapolis, Indiana -- Dan Wheldon won the Indianapolis 500 when leader JR Hildebrand slammed the wall on the final turn Sunday.

Wheldon, who lives in St. Petersburg, captured his second Indy 500 in his first race of the year, getting behind the wheel in a one-race deal for Bryan Herta Autosport.

But this one will be remembered for Hildebrand, a rookie from California, needing to make it through only one turn to win his Indy debut.

Instead, he got too high coming through the fourth turn and slammed the wall. Wheldon went past to take the checkered flag, while Hildebrand's crumpled machine slid across in second place.

Earlier, Indy 500 pole-sitter Alex Tagliani's magnificent month at the Brickyard ended in disappointment when he brushed the wall with just more than 50 laps remaining in the race.

The Canadian was attempting to pass JR Hildebrand on the outside entering Turn 4 when he got a little too high and scraped the outside wall, damaging the right front axle on his No. 77 Sam Schmidt Motorsports car.

"We lost the rear of the car," Tagliani said. "We were trying to protect that rear, and I think we were riding that front really hard. ... I was really, really loose. I couldn't turn the wheel."

Tagliani managed to guide the car back to pit road but could only watch in frustration as crewmembers tried to see if he could continue. Tagliani and Schmidt helped shake up the stranglehold power teams Target Chip Ganassi Racing and Team Penske have had on the series, brashly grabbing the pole and running competitively all month long.

Tagliani's misfortune came about 375 miles into a relatively orderly race in which defending champion Dario Franchitti set the pace, though there were moments of trepidation, particularly for Penske's struggling team.

Penske drivers have won 15 500s, but Will Power, Ryan Briscoe and three-time 500 winner Helio Castroneves all had significant issues getting around the venerable 2.5-mile track.

Briscoe appeared to be the bright spot, starting 26th but surging into the top 10 only to get be sent into the wall when Townsend Bell collided with him as both cars entered Turn 1 with just more than 40 laps remaining.

Castroneves shredded a right rear tire driving down pit road, but at least the tire was attached. Power had no such luck, doing a lap on three wheels early in the race when his left rear tire came off as he exited the pits.

IndyCar's controversial decision to go to double-file restarts at the Indy 500 claimed its first victim when E.J. Viso was knocked out of the race after bumping into two other cars.

Viso was battling for position on a restart 27 laps into the race when his No. 59 KV Racing Technology-Lotus made contact with another car as they went three-wide, then slammed into the outside wall in Turn 1.

"It was a restart, and I was running with a greyhound, with (James) Hinchcliffe," Viso said. "I believe Hinchcliffe missed a gear or something. He lost the momentum out of corner four ... but approaching corner one, I just got hit in my rear and left tire, and it just (spun) me."

The accident highlighted the concerns expressed by several drivers in the lead-up to the race about the dangers of the side-by-side restarts, a move the series borrowed from NASCAR in hopes of creating a more competitive product.

Viso, however, refused to blame the restart for the early end to his day.

"It had nothing to do with the restart," he said. "(Hinchcliffe) lost the momentum, and then we were approaching the corner and he just hesitated and hit my rear tire."

Hinchcliffe's day ended prematurely when he had his own brush with the wall but like Viso refused to make the restarts a major issue.

"It's a tough situation, but I think it turned out better than some of the drivers hoped and then feared it was going to be," Hinchcliffe said.

Takuma Sato also made an early exit from the centennial edition of the 500.

Sato was running in the middle of the 33-car field when his No. 5 KV Racing Technology Lotus went high and brushed the wall. Both Sato and Viso were checked at the infield care center and cleared to drive.

Paul Tracy went down several laps early in the race after brushing the wall between turns 3 and 4.

Rookie Jay Howard had a similar miscue, wrecking when his right rear tire came off as he exited pit road and he smacked the inside wall.

Simona De Silvestro, who suffered second and third-degree burns to her hands during a fiery crash earlier this month, started but completed only 44 laps because of suspension damage after brushing the wall early in the race.

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