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Hildebrand kicking self for mistake

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Lee Spencer

Lee Spencer is the Senior NASCAR Writer for FOXSports.com. She has provided award-winning coverage of auto racing over the last 15 years. Spencer has lent her expertise to both television and radio and is a regular contributor to SiriusXM Radio and the Performance Racing Network. Follow her on Twitter.

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INDIANAPOLIS

JR Hildebrand’s finish in his Indianapolis 500 debut Sunday can be summed up in two words: rookie error.

“As a driver, you never really know what you’re going to expect,” Hildebrand said. “We knew we had a fast race car. We knew if the race came to us, we may be in a position to sort of finish top three, top five, wherever that might be depending on how it panned out.

“But as a driver, I’m smart enough as a rookie to not expect, no matter what’s going to happen, I’m going to come to the Indianapolis 500 my first year and be in a position to win the race.”

No matter his expectations, Hildebrand was, indeed, in position to win the 100th Indy 500. That is, until reality set in and he had to settle for second place.

Hildebrand led three times for a total of seven laps over the course of the 200 laps. He was 36 laps into his final run and in fuel-conservation mode in the closing circuits.

As a succession of leaders were forced to pit for fuel, Hildebrand, 23, assumed the point on Lap 198.

With his spotter in his ear, Hildebrand was well aware that former 500 winner Dan Wheldon was closing fast. As Hildebrand wheeled the No. 4 National Guard car into the fourth and final turn, he moved up a lane to avoid a slower car coming out of the pits.

That’s where his trouble began.

“I ended up catching the (No.) 83, I think, going into Turn 4, a fairly inopportune area,” Hildebrand said. “I quickly decided, knowing that the cars in second and third were coming pretty strong, that rather than downshifting a bunch, sort of risking slowing the car way down coming onto the front straight, to stay behind him. I thought I’ll breathe it and go to the high side because it was a move I used earlier in the race to get around some slower cars in a fairly similar situation.

“I guess just with the tires worn as they were, the run being as long, that sort of stint of the race being as long as it was, there were a bunch of marbles on the outside. Once I got up there, there wasn’t a lot I could do.”

Hildebrand acknowledged “there were a few choice words” going through his head as he slapped the wall. He pancaked the right side of his Panther Racing/Dallara/Honda but didn’t lift with the finish line in sight.

“I was like Flat Chad after I hit the wall to try to get the thing across the start/finish line,” Hildebrand said. “It’s a helpless feeling driving the race car when you get in a situation like that.

“I was flat on the gas, man. What are you going to do at that point? I mean, after I hit that wall I was not slowing down to the start/finish line. Obviously, I got to the point that I couldn’t steer it anymore. I was making every effort at that point to try to lessen the blow.”

If there is a bright side to Hildebrand’s performance, his second-place Indy finish is a career best. For a freshman, Hildebrand has showed steady improvement. Before his outing at Indy, the Sausalito, Calif. native had an average finish of 12.8 in his first four races.

Despite his frustration, Hildebrand seemed more disappointed for his team.

In 21 attempts, Panther Racing has yet to win the Borg-Warner Trophy that goes to the Indy 500 winner. And in each of the past four 500s, a Panther driver has placed second. That includes Dan Wheldon, who drove for Panther racing when he was runner-up in 2009 and 2010 but won this year’s race driving for Bryan Herta.

“It’s not really like a personal thing right now,” Hildebrand said. “Maybe down the road it will turn into a personal thing that I’ll just be pissed off at myself for not doing whatever.

“In the end, it’s more about the people — for me at least. This team has worked so hard, it’s such an integral part of being here at Indianapolis and being successful at Indianapolis. That’s really where the sort of heartbreak is for me right now.”

Race of the century

Check out photos of the 100th anniversary of the Indianapolis 500.

NUMBERS GAME

1 lap led by 2011 Indy 500 winner Dan Wheldon.

17 times in the history of the Indianapolis 500 has the driver leading the first lap gone on to win.

25 cars were running at the finish — the record, 26, was set in the 1911 inaugural event, which had a 40-car field.

26 positions gained by Graham Rahal, who started 29th and finished third.

44 laps Simona de Silvestro completed before suspension issues ended her day.

93 laps led by Scott Dixon, including the first, but he finished fifth.

SAY WHAT?

Danica Patrick led 10 laps near the end of the race but was forced to pit for fuel 11 laps from her 10th-place finish.

"That's what you have to do here at Indy: You have to take that chance because it's win or bust here, for the most part. While it's great to have top-five finishes every weekend, Indy is about winning. And I was just saying, 'Every time I come here and see someone else win, I hate it more every time.' So the more times I come here, the more I love it, the more I want it.”


 

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