Top 10 Indy 500s, No. 5: Dan Wheldon wins after Hildebrand crashes in the last turn
(Editor’s note: NBC Sports has selected the Top 10 Indy 500s of All-Time through an esteemed panel of former drivers, broadcasters, journalists and historians. The countdown will run through the 107th Indianapolis 500.)
The 2011 Indianapolis 500 – and Indianapolis Motor Speedway’s three-year celebration of its Centennial Era – ended with one of the most stunning finishes ever seen at the Brickyard.
Over the race’s final stages, multiple frontrunners fell out of contention as their fuel strategies failed to reach the finish, and they were forced to pit.
This extended sequence ended with J.R. Hildebrand inheriting the lead with three laps to go, and it appeared the American rookie was set for a surprise victory at Indy.
But on the final lap, Hildebrand approached the lapped car of Charlie Kimball coming into Turn 4. Hildebrand went around Kimball’s outside to pass him but kept drifting up the track and smashed into the outside wall.
That opened the door for Dan Wheldon, the 2005 Indy winner, who was good on fuel and had been closing in on Hildebrand. The Englishman tracked him and his mangled car down on the frontstretch and sailed by to take the checkered flag, winning his second Indy 500.
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"(Hildebrand’s crash is) obviously unfortunate, but that’s Indianapolis,” Wheldon said afterward. “That’s why it’s the ‘Greatest Spectacle In Racing. You never know what’s going to happen.”
As for Hildebrand, he showed remarkable poise in explaining everything that led up to his crash in the 2011 Indy 500. He was more disappointed in not winning for his team than for himself.
“I felt like I just made a mistake, and it (hurt) our boys,” he said. “I guess that’s why rookies don’t win the Indianapolis 500 a whole lot.”
Wheldon’s 2011 Indy 500 triumph ultimately became a very poignant one. Less than five months later, the man known as “Lionheart” was killed in a massive crash during the 2011 IndyCar season finale at Las Vegas Motor Speedway (the race was canceled after the wreck).
He left behind his wife, Susie, and their two sons, Sebastian and Oliver, who are now pursuing their own racing careers as junior drivers for Andretti Autosport – the same team their father won for in 2005 at Indy.
Hildebrand since has made 11 more Indy 500 starts but hasn’t come as close as he did to winning in 2011. Since then, his best finish has been a sixth in 2016.
NBC Sports has ranked the Top 10 Indy 500s through a panel that judged through scores of 1-20 in five categories: quality of racing, memorable moments, strength of competition, historical impact and spectacle.
Here’s a look at No. 5 on the list:
Winner: Dan Wheldon
Margin of victory: Under caution
Lead changes: 23 among 10 drivers
Cautions: Seven for 40 laps
Other contenders: Chip Ganassi Racing teammates Scott Dixon and Dario Franchitti each led the race five times and combined to lead 124 of 200 laps.
Winning move: Coming to the checkered flag, Wheldon passed Hildebrand for the lead and the win after the latter’s crash in Turn 4. Wheldon led only the 200th and final lap of the race, setting a ‘500’ record for the fewest laps led by a winner.
How the voters saw it: Of the voters who had the 2011 Indy 500 in their top 10, 75 percent scored it at 85 or higher (out of a possible 100).