INDIANAPOLIS The Andretti jinx is over at the Indianapolis 500. Danica Patrick's reign is just beginning.
Dan Wheldon won it his fourth victory in five tries this year ending 35 years of frustration and failure for the Andretti at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway as Patrick's electrifying run fell short with a nearly empty fuel tank.
"I've finally won the Indy 500!" Michael Andretti, Wheldon's team owner, beamed in Victory Lane. "No more curse!"
The Andrettis had been plagued by bad luck at Indy since Michael's father, Mario, won in 1969, and it appeared they might lose out again when Patrick surged to the lead with 28 laps to go after surviving a stalled engine and a crash that tore off her left front wing and nose cone.
Patrick became the first woman to lead at Indy, getting out front three separate times for a total of 19 laps. Still, the 23-year-old rookie shrugged off the notion that her showing was a victory for women in racing.
"I made a helluva point for anybody," she said.
Either way, Patrick's run was one of the greatest by a rookie in 89 years of racing at Indianapolis.
But Wheldon passed her with just seven of the 200 laps to go and easily held on to become the first Englishman to win Indy since Graham Hill in 1966.
"It feels as good as if I won myself," said Michael Andretti, who led more laps at Indy than any other nonwinner before retiring from the cockpit after the 2003 race. Andretti even stole a swig of winner's milk from Wheldon, who chugged nearly half the bottle himself.
Andretti gave all the credit for the win to the 26-year-old driver with the movie star good looks, who is off to the best start in the Indy Racing League history.
"I'm just so happy for him," Michael said. "I think this is the first of many for him."
Wheldon, who said after winning the season-opener at Homestead, Fla., that his major goal in racing was to win the 500, was in tears after getting out of his car.
"This has been a dream come true for me. I've loved the Indianapolis 500 ever since I was a young kid," he said. "I came here and watched it for the first time in 1999. I'm having an emotional moment. I'm so proud."
Wheldon averaged 157.603 mph and covered the 500 miles in 3 hours, 10 minutes and 21.0769 seconds. He stands to earn about $1.5 million of the more than $10 million purse at Monday's victory banquet.
Patrick, trying to make her fuel last in the waning laps, held on to finish fourth, helped by a crash by fellow rookie Sebastien Bourdais one lap from the end. Wheldon ran out of fuel on his cooldown lap.
The best previous finish by a woman was ninth by Janet Guthrie in 1978. Patrick, driving in only her fifth IndyCar event, matched her previous best finish last month at Motegi, Japan, in the race that started people buzzing about her for the entire month of May.
The 5-foot-2, 100-pound Patrick followed Guthrie, Lyn St. James and Sarah Fisher to Indy, but none of those women caused the media frenzy and speculation that has followed Patrick. Sunday was no exception.
After starting fourth and becoming the first woman to lead a lap at Indy on lap 57, she stalled the engine while pitting her Honda-power Panoz on lap 79, falling to 16th, last on the lead lap.
Patrick kept her cool and moved all the way to eighth before making another mistake as the cars begin to speed up for a restart following a long caution period. She nearly ran into the car of Scott Sharp, turning sideways and getting hit hard by fellow rookie Tomas Enge. Tomas Scheckter spun to avoid Patrick and slid into the inside wall.
"I'm sorry," told her team on the radio. "They were going so slow. I slowed down, but as soon as I went up high it just stuck."
Patrick was able to get her damaged car back to the pits, where the Rahal Letterman Racing team, which won the race last year with Buddy Rice, changed the nose and wings and sent her back out, still on the lead lap. She made one more stop under caution on 159 to complete the repairs and got a full load of fuel on that last stop.
She came out 11th and moved up to eighth before the rest of the leaders pitted under a caution on lap 172, giving Patrick the lead again.
"She's been getting good fuel mileage, so we gambled," said team co-owner Bobby Rahal, the 1986 Indy winner.
Wheldon caught Patrick and passed her on lap 186 seconds before Kosuke Matsuura crashed, bringing out another yellow flag. But Patrick had the huge crowd cheering when she passed Wheldon for the lead on the restart on lap 190.
"I thought for a second we were going to win that thing at the end," Patrick said. "When you've got to save fuel at the end you're not as quick."
As she tried desperately to conserve fuel, her lap speeds dropped from 226 mph to 221 and Wheldon shot past into the lead on lap 194. By the time Bourdais crashed on lap 199, both Vitor Meira, Patrick's teammate, and Bryan Herta, Wheldon's teammate, had gotten past.
As she has been all month, Patrick appeared cool and confident after the race. But she said the rookie mistakes did upset her.
"I kind of screamed in my helmet a couple of times," she said. "It's important to stay calm, though. As long as you do, things should pan out."
She said she was most amazed by being able to overcome the crash.
"I can't believe my car didn't completely demolish because I got hit hard twice," she said.
Buddy Lazier, the 1996 Indy winner, finished fifth, followed by Andretti Green Racing driver Dario Franchitti, Scott Sharp and polesitter Tony Kanaan, the fourth Andretti entry. Two-time Indy winner Helio Castroneves was the only other driver on the lead lap at the end and finished ninth.
Thanks at least in part to the mania caused by Patrick this month, as well as the nearly perfect weather Sunday, the empty seats that had been visible in many areas of the vast Indy grandstands a year ago were filled and the crowd estimated at more than 300,000 had plenty of cheer about.
There were 27 changes in the 200-lap race, many of them passes under the green flag.
Sam Hornish Jr., a two-time IRL champion, had a great battle in the first half of the race with Kanaan, the two exchanging the lead several times. Hornish, who has yet to complete the entire race, led 77 laps but lost control on lap 146 and hit the wall.
Bruno Junqueira, who finished fifth in the rain-shortened race in 2004, ran among the leaders and was sixth when he tried to pass A.J. Foyt IV and wound up in the wall. The Brazilian driver, one of only two from the rival Champ Car series in the Indy field, was listed in fair condition at Methodist Hospital with a concussion and two fractured vertebrae and was scheduled for surgery Monday.
Larry Foyt, Foyt IV's uncle, also wound in the hospital with a chip fracture of his lower sine after slamming into the wall early in the race.