Fan favorite Stefan Wilson comes three laps short of Indy 500 glory

Power captures Indy 500 (2:54)

After the two cars ahead pit in the final laps, Will Power cruises to the checkered flag to win the Indianapolis 500. (2:54)

INDIANAPOLIS -- Stefan Wilson knew he was going to run out of fuel. The rest of the world did not.

Instead, the 250,000 sweat-drenched fans at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway were on their feet, believing that they were cheering a third consecutive improbable Indianapolis 500 winner to the checkered flag. There were four laps remaining -- really, three -- and Wilson's No. 25 Honda had taken the lead three laps earlier via an electrifying restart when he seized the point from veteran IndyCar racer Oriol Servia.

He was in position to do so via a gutsy strategy play from his Andretti Autosport team, choosing to stretch their fuel load to see if they might be able to sneak into the lead. There was nothing sneaky about how he'd raced into that lead. Once his car was out front and into clean air, speed was on his side. So was the crowd.

Unfortunately, the math was not.

"I am so happy I could give the crowd a thrill for a minute or two," the 28-year-old Brit said moments after the race, signing autographs through the chain-link fence that separates pit road from the infield grandstand. "Every day during this whole month of May at Indy I have met so many people who have told me they were rooting for me. It means so much that my last name means so much to them."

Wilson drew up his lip, tilted his head and smiled. "It was so close. I could almost see it up ahead. But yeah, I knew I was going to have to pit."

So he did, surrendering the lead as the field approached with three laps to go. He yanked his car left down pit road, forced to watch eventual winner Will Power streak by him down the frontstretch, headed to glory. After a splash of fuel, he made it back onto the track to finish 15th.

"We were right there. We were so close to changing my life forever," he said.

There were many reasons for that crowd to root for Wilson so thunderously during those closing laps, and then gasp with the same fervor when they realized he was slowing down. Indy loves an underdog, and the 28-year-old was making just his second Indy 500 start, his first in two years, and only the third IndyCar Series race of his entire life.

Indy loves to have its heartstrings yanked, and his car was sponsored by an organ donation awareness organization and carried the names of 25 people whose lives were saved by organ donation, most of whom visited with Wilson before the race. Indy loves racers with class, and one year ago he earned the respect of the people in Speedway, Indiana, when he graciously handled being pushed out of his 500 ride with superpower Andretti Autosport to make room for a moonlighting Formula One champion, Fernando Alonso.

But mostly, race fans love Wilson because they loved his big brother, Justin, a seven-time IndyCar race winner. This August will mark three years since the elder Wilson was killed in a bizarre accident at Pocono Raceway, suffering traumatic head injuries when a stray piece of debris struck his helmet during a slow, seemingly innocuous incident. The loss of the beloved racer struck deep across the motorsports community, from Formula One to NASCAR. The bulk of that grief was heaped upon Stefan's shoulders.

Think about that week in 2015. On Sunday, Wilson watched his brother's accident on television from England. Early Monday morning, he arrived at the Pennsylvania hospital to watch Justin pass away and then have conversations with doctors about having his brother's organs donated. He spent the week consoling his sister-in-law and two small nieces.

The next Sunday he was at the Sonoma Raceway for the IndyCar season finale, bravely fielding questions from the media, standing among his brother's friends and rivals during impromptu at-track memorial services and accepting the well-wishes from weeping fans, all wearing commemorative T-shirts and stickers with his brother's helmet and his tongue-in-cheek nickname, "Badass," emblazoned on them.

He was 25.

Sunday afternoon, one of those fans who ran to grab his autograph through the fence after the Indy 500 was wearing one of those T-shirts. This weekend, Justin's wife and kids were at the racetrack, as were Justin and Stefan's parents. And the sponsor that he worked so hard to thank through the disappointment of the near-win was that donation organization, #Driven2SaveLives, a relationship that began in those awful hours after his brother's death.

"My brother saved six lives that week after his accident," Stefan said, pointing to the logo on his silver and blue race car as it was towed away. "These people I met this month, there lives were saved too. Maybe having this car out front at the end of the race will save some more."

He also hopes it can save his career. Of the 33 drivers in Sunday's field, only a third race full time in the IndyCar Series. The others were in the 500 driving for part-time teams or in cars added to the rosters of the full-time organizations only for the sport's biggest race. Wilson was in one of those, an add-on effort by Andretti Autosport.

Like all of his fellow Indy one-off compatriots, he hopes his inspired Indy effort proves to be an audition for something bigger. At 28, Wilson isn't too old. But he's also no longer considered young, especially with his absence from an IndyCar paddock that, like all racing series, is very much an "out of sight, out of mind" world.

"That's really where my head is right now, even right after this race that I might have won," he confessed. "I just hope that my career isn't over. That's really what I am worried about. I hope so badly that this isn't my last time racing here. Or anywhere."

That's why he didn't simply turn off his two-way radio and ignore the orders from the pits telling him to give up the lead and come in for fuel. A man with no full-time ride and theoretically nothing to lose, he should've just said to hell with it and rolled the dice, right?

Wrong. He's also a man who is trying to earn the respect of those with cockpits to fill. He doesn't want to be labeled rogue, deaf or uncoachable.

Still, he had to have thought about it. Didn't he?

"Oh yeah, of course, I thought about it! What I really wanted was a wreck somewhere behind me, to bring that caution out," he explained, echoing the sentiments of race winner Power, who admitted being concerned that he couldn't catch Wilson had the matchup remained head-to-head, then admitted pure terror that a yellow flag would end the chase before any fuel issues could. "I have no regrets. None. If it is over, if I never race here again, then what a way to go out."

Wilson started to choke back tears.

"What a way to pay tribute to my brother. But also, what a way to write my own story. Justin would want me to be writing my own story by now, the Stefan Wilson story, not just the Justin's little brother story. Today, we did that."

Even if that story was denied its perfect happy ending.