Speaking with Dan Wheldon for any length of time about the Indianapolis 500 reveals a man who loves the race, respects the institution, and seems to understand just what it means to win here.
Despite that, we had every reason to suspect that the Centennial Anniversary Indy 500 would not be kind to Wheldon. Lacking a full-time IZOD IndyCar Series ride, the “Lionheart” instead had signed a one-off Indy 500 deal with Bryan Herta Autosport, one of the smallest teams in the garages.
Wheldon believed in his friend Herta, and believed they could compete. I spoke with him briefly earlier in the month, and there was a sense of high confidence--not arrogance, but just a sense he knew what he was doing.
Wheldon qualified well, starting P6, as Herta's operation was assisted from being part of Sam Schmidt Motorsports' wider data-sharing network of teams. Still, few pundits had Wheldon high on their list of potential winners.
During the race, Wheldon was continually up front, moving to third, falling back slightly, only to challenge again. The main focus was on the Target Chip Ganassi cars of Scott Dixon and Dario Franchitti, but Wheldon hung around.
In the end, by simply choosing to race to the end, by not toying with fuel strategy, he trusted his car, himself, and his small team to be in a position for good things to happen. When JR Hildebrand hit the Turn 4 wall on the last lap, Wheldon, whom had not led a single lap all day, sped to the front.
In all honestly, Dan Wheldon's #98 William Rast car led only a few hundred yards of the race at most. But they were the yards that counted. Certainly this win came about in a manner none of us could have predicted, but that makes it no less legitimate. Wheldon raced hard, raced until the very end, and the spirit of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway favored that effort.
In the wake of one of the most improbable victories of all time, it's appropriate to take stock of just what that victory signifies. Wheldon now joins the ranks of two-time winners, rarefied air filled with names such as Vukovich, Unser, Jr., Milton, Ward, and Fittipaldi. At 32 years of age, he has two wins, two seconds, a third, and a fourth at Indy.
Sunday's race marked a number of occasions. It was the Centennial Anniversary of this great institution, the Indy 500. It was the last race where the present Dallara/Honda formula will be employed. It was one of only two races where the leader on Lap 199 did not win the race. It was the first time since 1987 (Al Unser, Sr.) that a one-off driver won the Indy 500.
For Dan Wheldon, who trusted his own abilities, his team, and his friend, it also signaled a reminder that he has cemented his place among the true legends of Indy.
Zachary Houghton runs www.indycaradvocate.com, which features regularly-updated INDYCAR, IZOD IndyCar Series, and Mazda Road to Indy interviews, commentary, and more. You can find him on Twitter at @indycaradvocate.