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Indy stage was set for someone else

INDIANAPOLIS – Auto racing's biggest stage was set for Danica Patrick to historically steal the show. But Dan Wheldon played the role of villain to perfection and walked away Sunday as winner of the 89th Indianapolis 500.

Patrick, the 23-year-old female racer who captured hearts all month long at the Brickyard, held the race lead with 10 laps to go despite her spin on a restart with 44 laps left that crashed out three competitors. But as the laps ticked down, Danica knew she was critically low on fuel, and that forced her to back off just enough to allow Wheldon through to his fourth IRL IndyCar Series victory in five races.

In any case, a fourth-place finish with 24 laps led – the first ever for a non-male driver at Indianapolis – should be more than enough for Patrick to clinch the $25,000 JPMorgan Chase Rookie of the Year Award. She also proved, as if there was any doubt remaining, that she is by far the most competitive female pilot to come along in any form of open-wheel racing.

Yet this gorgeous Sunday afternoon belonged to Wheldon, a 26-year-old Englishman who put his Formula One hopes on hold four years ago to pursue the American dream in the IndyCar Series. The move paid off handsomely for Wheldon, who rewarded team owner Michael Andretti's faith and trust by delivering the former open-wheel star the one race he never could win during his driving days.

"Give me a sip – I've never tasted that milk before," Andretti exclaimed in Victory Lane. "Dan drove a hell of a race. It's just unbelievable, such a great feeling. I'm still in shock – I finally won the Indy 500."

Even though he was the runaway IndyCar championship leader coming into the month of May, Wheldon flew under the media radar after qualifying a lowly 16th. In the first half of Sunday's race, Wheldon's pit crew did the heavy lifting, elevating their driver into the top five during a round of stops under the caution flag on lap 79. Wheldon didn't make it to the front of the field until lap 150, but he led 30 of the final 50 laps.

"This has been a dream come true for me," said Wheldon, whose winning average speed was slowed to 157.603 mph by a series of late yellows. "I've loved the Indy 500 since I came to the race for the first time in 1999 and sat in the stands. The best drivers in the world are here and I've got the best team in the world. It's the proudest moment of my life. My car was at its best right at the end of the race and I needed every bit of it to win."

Wheldon's debut at Indy in 2003 ended with his car upside down after his youthful aggression got the better of him. He emerged from that incident as a more patient driver, yet he has won more races (seven) than anyone else in the IndyCar Series since the start of the 2004 season, often through strategy rather than speed. Even when they don't have the fastest car, Wheldon and Andretti Green have found a way to win and they have established themselves as the favorites for the 2005 IndyCar Series crown.

"I get a lot of support from the team, even when I drove like an idiot like I did that day," Wheldon recalled of his Indy baptism. "This team tells you how to overcome your mistakes in a positive way. Now I feel there is lot more to come from me. This is only my second full season in the series, but that's what having great teammates can do for you."

Most young English drivers dream of winning the British Grand Prix, but Wheldon is famous for saying, "Formula One is for girls." Since breaking into the IRL as a test driver for Panther Racing in 2002, his overriding career goal has been Indy, and he hasn't been shy about promoting that fact.

"When I came in 1999 and watched Kenny Brack win, it opened my eyes to the magnitude of the event," he said. "I knew I wanted to be here. When you come here in person it's unbelievable. I'm such a big fan. The history and tradition is what makes this place."

Most of this year's Indy history and trivia centered around Patrick, who re-wrote the record book for female drivers and earned herself a load of respect and credibility. Had she avoided a couple of rookie mistakes, she could have made it two Indy wins in a row for Rahal Letterman Racing, which at least had the consolation prize of Vitor Meira's second-place finish.

"She's a racer – I don't think there is any question about that," gushed team owner (and former Indy winner) Bobby Rahal. "She always gets great fuel mileage, so we decided to roll the dice. For her first 500, she ran really well."

Patrick, her own worst critic, was somewhat easier on herself than she was after a tiny mistake during qualifying probably cost her the pole.

"Gosh, did I make some mistakes today," she admitted. "I stalled it in the pits and I can't believe my car wasn't completely demolished when I spun because I got hit hard twice. I'm more mad at myself for the stall.

"But I made a hell of a [statement] for anybody. I came through the pack twice. That might have showed the most. I was able to pass and able to learn how to set someone up better. I definitely got a lot of experience in a lot of situations."

More so than in the recent past, this year's Indy 500 was chock full of compelling stories, even without the Danica factor. Perhaps the happiest man at the Speedway on Sunday night was 1996 Indy winner Buddy Lazier, who enjoyed an extremely competitive one-off run with Panther Racing to fifth place.

On the flip side, Champ Car World Series flag-wavers Newman/Haas Racing saw both of its drivers end the day in the wall after running in the top five. Sebastien Bourdais escaped unscathed from his late-race crash, but Bruno Junqueira will require surgery to repair fractures to the T-12 and L-1 vertebrae after the lapped car of an inattentive A.J. Foyt IV sent the Brazilian into a near head-on impact with the Turn 1 wall. The unlucky Junqueira is likely to be out of action for at least two months.

Also coming away from the race disappointed were Wheldon's teammates Dario Franchitti and Tony Kanaan, who finished sixth and eighth, respectively.

At least they had the consolation of an Andretti Green victory party.

"Dan lucked his way into a few wins this year, but today he earned it," Franchitti said. "You've got to look for a silver lining, and Dan winning the race is that silver lining."

John Oreovicz covers open-wheel racing for National Speed Sport News and ESPN.com.