Wheldon wins in only outing of season

Published May. 29, 2011 1:00 a.m. EDT

As most of the field in Sunday’s Indianapolis 500 starts preparing for the next race on the schedule, Dan Wheldon expects to be on a beach somewhere near his adopted hometown of St. Petersburg, Fla., reclining in a lounge chair alongside his family — and basking in the sunlight after shining in the spotlight as winner of the 100th-anniversary running of the 500.

In his first and only scheduled IZOD IndyCar Series race of the year, the popular Brit led only the final 1,000 feet of the 500 miles, clinching his second Indy 500 victory when rookie race leader JR Hildebrand crashed a straightaway from the checkered flag — wasting a nearly 4-second lead on the field. The one lap Wheldon’s No. 98 William Rast car was credited with leading — Lap 200 of 200 — is the fewest ever by a race winner.

But this, the Greatest Spectacle in Racing, is the only race of the season for Wheldon. And he was passionately, wholeheartedly ultra-committed to making it count.

Call it one and well done.


“With a Cinderella story we took on the might of Roger Penske’s organization and Chip Ganassi, so now when I’m on the beach with my wife and two kids next week, we can be proud of what we’ve achieved together,’’ said Wheldon, whose wife, Susie, gave birth to another son, Oliver, a month ago.

“I’ll be smiling, it will make me a happier person.’’

It is the ultimate racing smirk.

The small team — owned in part by Bryan Herta, Wheldon’s former teammate at Andretti Autosport — came together just for this special anniversary running of the Indy 500. But what the team lacked in size and establishment, it made up for in talent and desire.

From the time the good friends announced the racing partnership two months ago, still unsponsored, Wheldon was quietly and confidently predicting good things for Indy — almost as if he knew exactly how things would turn out.

The odds were certainly against the experiment however. Big name, big-budget teams like Penske Racing, Target Chip Ganassi Racing and Andretti Autosport are typically the odds-on favorites at The Brickyard. Wheldon and a handful of smaller teams outshone the front-runners during qualifying, but many expected the race to be a different story. It wasn’t.

Not one of Penske Racing’s three cars finished in the top 10. Graham Rahal’s third-place showing was Ganassi’s top effort. Of Ganassi’s other cars, Scott Dixon ran out of gas on the final lap and finished fifth and defending race winner Dario Franchitti finished 12th.

Wheldon’s former team, Andretti Autosport, was led by ninth- and 10th-place finishers Marco Andretti and Danica Patrick.

“On paper, we really had no business believing we could win,’’ said Herta, who won four IndyCar races as a driver between 1994 and 2006.

“But Dan believed in us so strongly he made us believe it, too. It’s really his spirit that came across the whole team and made us believe we had a chance to win this thing.’’

This win was also hugely popular with many competitors. Polesitter Alex Tagliani, another of the well-publicized underdog overachievers, actually waited trackside after crashing out of the race and was among the first to congratulate Wheldon in victory circle.

Dixon’s wife, Emma, stopped by victory circle to congratulate Wheldon and his wife. Franchitti took to Twitter wondering if Wheldon had persuaded any naysayers that he was wrongly omitted from Indy’s Greatest 33 Drivers list this week (he has two Indy victories and was runner-up in 2009 and 2010).

This victory was personal. Wheldon won his first Indy 500 in 2005, but the victory was vastly overshadowed by Patrick’s rookie appearance and historic laps out front. There was even some unmerited debate Sunday as to whether Wheldon illegally passed Hildebrand under caution.

Wheldon has driven for and parted company with the big-name teams — Andretti and Ganassi — that he so soundly defeated Sunday. Yet here he is, a two-time Indy 500 winner and 2005 IndyCar Series champion, without a full-time ride. So he made the most of his part-time gig.

Yes, Wheldon reluctantly admitted, there was a little smile on his face as he drove by rookie JR Hildebrand’s hobbled car.

“As soon as I knew it wasn’t serious, there was a little smile on my face,” Wheldon said. “From that point, it was just making sure I didn’t do anything silly.

“Then I got on the radio and started crying. I’m not normally that emotional. But having been through what we’ve been though and being able to deliver this for everybody is certainly very gratifying.

“I think my contract expires at midnight so I just knew when I started this race that I wanted to do everything in my power to deliver a win for not just myself – because I didn’t feel we had anything to prove — but for such a great group of people.

“It’s a fantastic day. This is a Cinderella story.’’