IndyCar: The most bizarre, heartbreaking Indy 500 finish ever

J.R. Hildebrand, Indy 500, IndyCar (Photo by Todd Warshaw/Getty Images)
J.R. Hildebrand, Indy 500, IndyCar (Photo by Todd Warshaw/Getty Images) /

Ten years ago today, the Indy 500 saw the most dramatic and heartbreaking finish in its history, one that will likely never be topped.

Whether it’s Al Unser Jr. beating Scott Goodyear to the start/finish line in 1992 or Sam Hornish Jr. overcoming a massive gap to rob a 19-year-old Marco Andretti from the win in the last few feet of lap 200 in 2006, there have been some heartbreaking Indy 500 finishes for many IndyCar drivers over the years.

But I still don’t know how anything will ever hold a candle to what happened on this day 10 years ago now, a day that still seems like it could have been yesterday.

Also. Danica Patrick's worst crash. light

The 2011 race was the 95th running of the 200-lap “Greatest Spectacle in Racing” around the four-turn, 2.5-mile (4.023-kilometer) oval in Speedway, Indiana, and it marked the race’s 100th anniversary.

Dick Harroun, the late grandson of the race’s first winner Ray Harroun, was even in attendance to celebrate, and he witnessed one of the all-time greats.

More from IndyCar

Why do I call a heartbreak one of the all-time greats? Because for every heartbreak results-wise, there is somebody who comes out on the winning end, and in this case, on Sunday, May 29, 2011, it was the late Dan Wheldon.

Like that was Harroun’s final chance to watch the Indy 500 before his passing in December of that year, it was Wheldon’s final chance to compete in it. He was sadly killed in an accident at Las Vegas Motor Speedway that October before he got the chance to defend his second Indy 500 crown.

But how did Wheldon end up in victory lane?

Danica Patrick took the race lead with 22 laps remaining in the race after Scott Dixon, who led a race-high 73 of the first 178 laps after starting in second place, came in for his final pit stop.

But she still needed to pit, and while many fans wanted to be in denial, that wasn’t going to change anything — and neither would a late caution.

She stayed out front for 10 laps before Bertrand Baguette ran her down and took the lead with 12 laps remaining.

There were questions regarding whether or not Baguette could make it on fuel. He ultimately came into the pits and relinquished the lead to J.R. Hildebrand with three laps remaining, just moments after Hildebrand had passed Dario Franchitti for what was second place at the time.

But even to this day, there are still questions, based on Baguette’s lap times, regarding whether or not he could have gone longer.

With three laps remaining, Hildebrand was now in the race lead. He was clearly saving fuel, but his gap over second place was so huge that all he needed to do was stay out of trouble before he became the first rookie winner of the race since Helio Castroneves won it for the first of now three times in 2001.

For those watching the race on television — and even many watching in-person — it wasn’t even super clear who was running in second place at this point, given the drivers who were saving fuel, the drivers who were coming into the pits, the drivers who were running out of fuel, the drivers who were being passed for position, coupled with all the lapped cars, etc.

ABC’s scoring bar at the top had no idea, either.

Hildebrand had an uneventful lap 198 and an uneventful lap 199, and his gap over second place Wheldon was still quite sizable.

Turns one, two and three went smoothly. Turn four, not so much.

Watch how it all unfolded below (start at 3:02:00).

Wheldon became the first driver to ever win the race while leading only its final lap, and that would be the final lap he ever ran in the Indy 500. He became just the second driver to win the race via a last-lap pass, with the first being Hornish over Andretti.

To this day, Hildebrand has never avenged his defeat. He has competed in the race in every year since, but his top finish, save for this heartbreaking second place result, is a sixth place finish in 2016. He also led that race, which took place exactly five years ago today, in the late stages, but that race also came down to some interesting fuel strategy.

Next. Top 10 IndyCar drivers of all-time. dark

The 105th running of the Indy 500 is scheduled to take place this Sunday, May 30. NBC is set to broadcast the race live from Indianapolis Motor Speedway beginning at 11:00 a.m. ET. Hildebrand, driving the #1 Chevrolet for A.J Foyt Enterprises in his 11th Indy 500 start, is set to start in 22nd place.