There were 22 on-track passes for the lead, including four in the first ten laps. Dan Wheldon made the final such pass on lap 194, going by media darling Danica Patrick. There might have been one more, except that Sebastien Bourdais crashed with two laps left, causing one of the more exciting 500s in recent years to end under yellow.
Patrick was the story though. She showed both her skill and inexperience, and ended up fourth after leading with seven laps to go. She gave a little ground at the start, but still ran in the top five for most of the early part of the race. She actually led lap 56 as a result of the cars ahead of her pitting, making her the first women to lead a lap at Indy. However, when she went into the pits on lap 79, she stalled the car coming out and dropped out of the top five, all the way back to 16th.
On lap 132, her left front tire touched the rear right tire of Kosuke Matsuura’s car, but both drivers were able to maintain control and go on. Often, that kind of touch puts both cars into the wall.
After cleaning up Sam Hornish Jr’s annual mess on lap 154, the cars were coming into turn four ready to go green, when Patrick spun trying to avoid Scott Sharp’s car in front of her. Her nose cone was damaged, but the Tomases (Schectker and Enge), as well as Jeff Bucknum and Patrick Carpentier were not so lucky. All four wrecked trying to avoid Patrick and went out of the race. Patrick pitted and got the nose cone replaced, but had to come back in for a penalty stop because the pits were closed when she came in the first time. That actually ended up working to her advantage, because she got fuel and tires and was set to try to finish the last 40 laps without stopping, which is just a bit beyond the usual range. So, even though she was in 9th after all that, every one ahead of her had to stop at least one more time.
When Roger Yasukawa’s car blew an engine on lap 170, the leaders went to the pits and Patrick had the lead, which she kept after the race went green again until Wheldon passed her the first time on lap 186. As Wheldon was finishing the pass on the front stretch, the yellow came out again for Matsurra’s wreck.
They went green again on lap 190, and Patrick, now running on fumes, shot past Wheldon for the lead into turn one. She was able to hold him off for four laps before the lack of fuel pressure and old tires gave Wheldon the window to reclaim the lead for good. Before long, Patrick’s teammate, Vitor Meira, and Bryan Herta got by her as well.
Up until Hornish’s crash, the race was dominated by Hornish and the pole-sitter (and if you’ve ever sat on a pole, you know how painful that can be) Tony Kanaan. Hornish led the most laps, including all but ten of the laps between 39 and 119. However, his troubled Speedway history added another chapter when he slid up into the wall while trying to give a little room to Bourdais down low. Hornish has never finished better than 14th and has finished running only once in six tries at Indy.
Speaking of frustration, Wheldon finally made a winner of Michael Andretti at Indy. Andretti had a rough career as a driver at the Brickyard, but Wheldon gave him a chance to sip some milk in the winners circle for the first time. Any other year, that would have been the big story at the track, but the Danica show overshadowed even the winner.
Some other notes from Indy:
I forget the guy who did play-by-play on the radio, but that’s because he was mostly forgettable. I do remember that he promised me four times after the race to give us a full field rundown (the final 1-33 standings), but that never happened.
Also, on the radio, well-past-his-time race commentator Chris Economaki seriously suggested that Dan Wheldon let Patrick pass her on the restart at lap 190 because he heard the boos when he passed her right before the yellow came out a few laps earlier.
Still, that’s much better than Todd Harris did on television. There was plenty of exciting moments in this race, but none of them passed without Harris making some inane and irrelevant comment (example: after one of Franchitti’s passes for the lead, he commented that his wife, Ashley Judd, would be proud). If that’s all they have to replace a legend like Page, then it’s time to bring Page back. (Another example: when Patrick took the lead late, Harris was making comparisons to Amelia Earhart and Sally Ride.)
One of the pit reporters seemed pretty inept as well, but I don’t remember her name.
Gordon used to try to race both the Indy 500 and the NASCAR Coca-Cola 600 on the same day, but the start time of the Indy 500 was moved one hour later this year, which makes such a feat impossible anymore, so I guess he doesn’t have to worry about Danica yet.