INDIANAPOLIS — Dan Wheldon was zipping toward the final corner of the Indianapolis 500, surely figuring the best he could do was another runnerup finish.
Then he came upon rookie JR Hildebrand's car, all smashed up and sliding along the wall.
Hildebrand had made the ultimate mistake with his last turn, and Wheldon made an improbable turn into Victory Lane.
"It's obviously unfortunate, but that's Indianapolis," said Wheldon, 32, who won Indy in 2005 and finished second the past two years. "That's why it's the greatest spectacle in racing. You never now what's going to happen."
This might have been the wildest one ever.
In his first event of the year, the St. Petersburg resident 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 Sunday.
Leading by almost four seconds and needing to make it around the 2½-mile track one more time, Hildebrand cruised through the first three turns.
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 approached another rookie, Charlie Kimball, going much slower as they closed in on 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.
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.
Not bad, considering Wheldon doesn't have a full-time job.
"I just felt a lot of relief. It's an incredible feeling," Wheldon said. "I never gave up."
After losing his ride from last season — with Hildebrand's Panther Racing, no less — Wheldon had plenty of time to hang out with his wife and two children, while 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 might lead to a bigger gig.
For now, though, there are no guarantees.
"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.
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.
On Lap 147, Tagliani lost it coming out of the fourth turn and banged into the wall.
And after a series of late pit stops, things got interesting. Graham Rahal spent time up front. Then Danica Patrick claimed the lead but stopped for fuel with nine laps to go and finished 10th. "Every time I come here, it's more and more depressing when I don't win the race," she said.
Meanwhile, Belgium driver Bertrand Baguette had already gotten past Patrick, but he didn't have enough fuel, either.
Finally, the lead belonged to Hildebrand. All he had to do was make it to the end. He came up one turn short.
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.
"I was trying to go as hard as I could. I kept pushing," Wheldon said. "It's such a dream ride. I didn't want to give up. It's my only race of the year."