INDIANAPOLIS — Dan Wheldon was zipping toward the final corner of Sunday's Indianapolis 500, surely figuring the best he could do was another runner-up finish.
Then he came upon JR Hildebrand's crumpled car, all smashed up and sliding along the wall.
The rookie had made the ultimate mistake with his very last turn of the wheel, and Wheldon, not Hildebrand, made an improbable turn into Victory Lane.
"It's obviously unfortunate, but that's Indianapolis," said Wheldon, who won Indy in 2005 and finished second the last two years. "That's why it's the greatest spectacle in racing. You never know what's going to happen."
This might have been the whackiest one ever.
In his first event of the year, Wheldon captured the ultimate IndyCar prize. But the 100th anniversary of the "Greatest Spectacle in Racing" will be remembered more for the guy who let it slip away with the checkered flag in sight.
Leading by almost 4 seconds and needing to make it around the 21/2;-mile track just one more time, Hildebrand cruised through the first three turns with no problem.
The fourth one got him. He went too high, lost control and slammed into the outside wall. Wheldon sped past, while Hildebrand's battered machine skidded across the line 2.1 seconds behind, still hugging the concrete barrier.
"It's a helpless feeling," Hildebrand said.
The 23-year-old Californian got into trouble when he came up on another rookie, Charlie Kimball, going much slower as they approached the last corner. Instead of backing off, the leader moved to the outside to make the pass — a decision that sent him slamming into the wall to a collective gasp from the crowd of 250,000.
"I caught him in the wrong piece of track," Hildebrand said. "I got up in the marbles and that was it."
While Wheldon celebrated his second Indy 500 win, series officials reviewed the video to see if Wheldon passed the wrecked machine before the caution lights went on. He clearly did, and Hildebrand's team said it wouldn't protest the result.
That gave the Brit another spot on the Borg-Warner Trophy.
Not bad, considering he doesn't even have a full-time job.
"I just felt a lot of relief. It's an incredible feeling," Wheldon said. "I never gave up."
He took the traditional swig of milk and headed off on a triumphant lap around the speedway — a lap that Hildebrand should have been taking.
Instead, the youngster stopped by the garage to get a look at his mangled car, which was hauled through Gasoline Alley instead of being wheeled into Victory Lane. He's now in the company of athletes such as Jean Van de Velde, who squandered a three-shot lead on the last hole of the 1999 British Open, and Lindsey Jacobellis, whose hotdogging wipeout at the 2006 Winter Olympics cost her a certain gold medal.
They had it in the bag — and threw it all away.
"I'm just frustrated. It's not because we came in here with the expectation of winning and we didn't," Hildebrand said. "I felt like 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, and we'll be back next year, I guess."
After losing his ride from last season — with Hildebrand's team, no less — Wheldon had plenty of time to hang out with his wife and two young children, while also dealing with the burden of his mother being diagnosed with Alzheimer's. He longed to get back behind the wheel, and when May rolled around he had a one-off deal with retired driver Bryan Herta's fledgling team.
They came up with a winning combination, which may well lead to a bigger gig.
For now, though, there are no guarantees — even for the Indy 500 champion.
"I think my contract expires at midnight," Wheldon said, managing a smile.
The 200-lap race was dominated much of the day by Chip Ganassi's top two drivers, defending champ Dario Franchitti and 2008 winner Scott Dixon.
But after a series of late pit stops, things really got interesting. Second-generation racer Graham Rahal spent some time up front. Danica Patrick claimed the lead but had to stop for fuel with nine laps to go. Belgium driver Bertrand Baguette had already gotten past Patrick, but he didn't have enough fuel, either.
When Baguette went to the pits with three laps to go, the lead belonged to Hildebrand. All he had to do was make it to the end.
He came up one turn short.
"My disappointment is for the team," Hildebrand said. "We should've won the race."
Not that Wheldon isn't a deserving champ. He has 16 career wins and finished in the top 10 of the series standings seven years in a row, capturing the title in 2005.
But in the peculiar world of auto racing, which runs on sponsorship dollars and not necessarily credentials, Wheldon was squeezed out of his ride at Panther.
He sat out the first four races of the year, but no way was he going without a ride at Indy. He's had too much success around this place.
"Dan Wheldon, he's a great winner," Patrick said. "And what a great story. He hasn't run this year. ... That's really cool."
Still, it was a bitter disappointment for Patrick, who ended up 10th.
"It's more and more depressing when I don't win the race," said Indy's leading lady, who might be heading to NASCAR next year.
Patrick knows about misfortune leading to victory for Wheldon. His first victory came when she led late in the race, only to have to back off the throttle to save enough fuel to make it to the finish.
This time, Wheldon never led a lap until the last one, the first time that's happened since Joe Dawson won the second Indy 500 in 1912.
It was the second time a driver lost the lead on the last lap — it happened to another rookie, Marco Andretti, in 2006 — and it's something Hildebrand will always remember.
"Is it a move I would do again?" he said. "No."
Rahal finished third, followed by hard-charging Tony Kanaan, who came all the way from the 22nd starting spot to contend for his first 500 win, just a year after leaving Michael Andretti's team. Dixon was fifth, followed by Oriol Servia, while Franchitti lost speed in the closing laps and slipped all the way to 12th.
Right from the start, the Ganassi cars showed just how strong they would be on a sweltering day at the Brickyard, where the temperature climbed into the upper 80s and the heat on the track was well over 100 degrees.
From the middle of the front row, Dixon blew by pole-sitter Alex Tagliani before they even got to the start-finish line, diving into the first turn with the lead.
Tagliani ran strong through the first half of the race but began having problems with his handling. Finally, on lap 147, he lost it coming out of the fourth turn and banged into the wall for a disappointing end to an amazing month for his car owner, Sam Schmidt, who watched the race from a wheelchair in the pits.
Schmidt has been a quadriplegic since a racing crash 11 years ago, but he's turned his efforts to building an IndyCar team. He had another car in the race, one-off driver Townsend Bell, who started from the inside of the second row and ran in the top 10 much of the day until he was collided with Ryan Briscoe on lap 158.
Briscoe's crash summed up the day for IndyCar's other elite team.
Roger Penske's trio of drivers capped a disappointing month with a grim performance on race day.
On the very first stop, Will Power drove out of the pits with a loose left rear wheel, which flew off before he got back on the track. While it bounced down pit road, Power set off around the 21/2;-mile oval on three wheels, sparks flying out from under his machine as it limped back for another tire. He finished 14th — the best showing for Penske Racing.
Helio Castroneves, hoping for a record-tying fourth Indy win, started back in 16th spot after struggling in qualifying and did his best just to stay on the lead lap, much less challenge for the lead. That effort ended when Briscoe and Bell got together — and Castroneves ran off a piece of debris, shredding a tire. He wound up one lap down in 17th.
Briscoe's crash left him 27th.
"It was a tough day," Penske said. "But you've got execute."
There was only one wreck on the much-debated double-file restarts but plenty of thrilling moves — just what IndyCar officials were hoping for when they imposed the NASCAR-style procedure after each caution period.
At one point after taking green, Castroneves had to dive onto the lane that cars normally take coming out of the pits just to get through the second turn. The crowd erupted in cheers, clearly enjoying the show.
For Hildebrand, the cheers turned to groans on the final turn.
"It's just a bummer," he said.