Indianapolis: England's Dan Wheldon captured a dramatic centennial edition of the Indianapolis 500 after American rookie leader JR Hildebrand crashed on the final turn of the last lap.
Wheldon, a 2005 Indy 500 winner now unable to find a full-season ride, was runner-up the past two years and appeared destined for another second-place showing until 23-year-old Hildebrand slammed into the outer wall.
The only lap Wheldon led was the only one that mattered.
"It's just an incredible day," Wheldon said in Victory Lane. "I'm struggling being a part-timer right now. It's a fantastic achievement being here."
Wheldon sped across the finish line first after 200 laps around the famed 2.5-mile (4km) Indianapolis Motor Speedway oval while Hildebrand, trying to manage a victory on a low-fuel tank, skidded across second in his wrecked car.
"We were way at the end of the fuel stint," said Hildebrand, who escaped injury. "I knew the guys behind me were coming hard. I went on the high side and as soon as I did I got into the marbles and went into the wall.
"It is a helpless feeling."
American Graham Rahal, a 22-year-old American trying to become Indy's youngest champion, was third followed by Brazil's Tony Kanaan in fourth with New Zealand's Scott Dixon in fifth and Spain's Oriol Servia sixth.
Wheldon became the first winner since Joe Dawson in 1912 -- at the second Indy 500 -- to win after leading only one lap. Hildebrand became only the second racer to lose the lead on the final lap, joining 2006 US rookie Marco Andretti.
Defending champion Dario Franchitti went from the lead to the pits for fuel with 36 laps remaining, hoping to reach the finish without another stop. He instead finished 12th and could only ponder what might have been had he stayed with the lead.
"I'm not going to second guess my guys," said Franchitti, who led for 51 laps. "I am devastated. I don't think that's too strong a word. That's as good as I can do it. We did a great job. It's too bad we didn't get the result."
"We had the car to win and we didn't get it done."
His departure left front-row starter Servia in front when racing resumed but Rahal, whose father Bobby won the race 25 years before, beat him to the first turn to grab the lead until New Zealand's Scott Dixon passed him prior to the final pit stops for leaders.
The leaders' fuel stops put Danica Patrick, trying to become the first woman to win the Indy 500, ahead with 20 laps remaining. But the American needed a caution period to finish the last 41 laps without refueling in order to win.
Belgian Bertrand Baguette, also low on fuel, passed Patrick for the lead with 12 laps remaining but went into the pits with three laps left for fuel as Hildebrand passed Franchitti and appeared set for victory.
Then came a crash that created one the most dramatic finishes in the 100-year history of the US oval classic, leaving a stunned Wheldon screaming with joy as he took the checkered flag.
"I was just trying to go as hard as I could. They said a lot of those guys were struggling on fuel," Wheldon said. "I just felt a lot of relief. After being second for the past two years, it felt great."
Two of those runner-up efforts came with John Barnes, Hildebrand's car owner who settled for second for a fourth year in a row.
"I'm just frustrated," Hildebrand said. "I just made a mistake and it cost our boys. I guess that's why rookies don't win the Indianapolis 500 a whole lot. It's just a bummer."
With his car bearing sponsorship from the US National Guard, Hildebrand was particularly sorry to miss out on the Memorial Day holiday weekend honoring fallen soldiers.
"I didn't want to be the next bridesmaid," Hildebrand said. "When you have a chance to win, this weekend with all the soldiers, you have to take it. Instead it's second again."
Barnes was proud of Hildebrand's effort despite the disappointing end.
"He did a hell of a job," Barnes said. "He'll rethink turn four for a long time but he put us where we're at. It's just one of those things. You have to hold your head high. He drove the wheels off it. I couldn't be prouder of him."
Patrick settled for 10th.
"You have to try to win at Indy," Patrick said. "You have to go for it."
Australian Will Power, the season points leader, lost his left rear wheel in the pits and did a lap on three tires before returning to the pits and falling back for good.
Pole-sitter Alex Tagliani of Canada brushed the outer wall on lap 148 to end his day.
First Published: Monday, May 30, 2011, 09:22