INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – For a moment, it looked like the third time would be the charm for Dan Wheldon and Panther Racing.
The team came into Sunday's Indianapolis 500 with two straight runner-up performances at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. But as the final laps ticked down and it became evident Dario Franchitti was trying to save fuel, Wheldon, who was good on fuel to the finish, was in position to pounce should the Scotsman run out of ethanol.
Starting from the 18th position, Wheldon had worked his way up the pylon at a gradual pace throughout the afternoon. Now it appeared that the dominance of Franchitti, who led 155 laps, was finally running out, and he would be the beneficiary.
But Mike Conway's hellacious flight into the Turn 3-4 short chute fence on the final lap ended any chance of Wheldon's coming from behind to win his second 500. He won't have much time to dwell on the matter as he and the other IZOD IndyCar Series drivers return to action in less than a week at Texas Motor Speedway.
With Indy now in the rear-view mirror, the battle for the championship is truly set to begin. And with 40 points in the bank thanks to Wheldon's second-place run on Sunday, there's momentum for his National Guard-backed team. But the Englishman was still bothered by coming up short at the Brickyard.
"It's a good day [for the championship], but I can tell you that if I have to race until I'm 86 years old, I'm going to race until I've won another Indianapolis 500," the 2005 Indy champ said. "We know we have Texas coming up, but it's important after a race like this ... After this event, you download the feelings of your race car with the engineer just to make sure you have a good baseline to start from next year, or if we test in the winter.
"We're in pretty good shape for [Texas] and we'll be able to download probably more than we would have normally for this race and go on, but it's one of those things. [The Indy 500] is such a great race, and it's just disappointing not to win."
Wheldon wasn't the only driver to see his chances for victory go by the boards in dramatic fashion Sunday.
Helio Castroneves came into the race aiming to become the fourth driver to win four Indianapolis 500s. But on Lap 146, the three-time champion of the Greatest Spectacle in Racing had his car stall on pit road, giving him a 15-second stop that effectively crippled his bid to make history.
"Unfortunately, silly mistakes put us in the back," said Castroneves, who finished ninth. "I'm very disappointed. I'm more disappointed with the mistake. Certainly, I'm very upset for my guys. They did an incredible job the whole month long. They should walk out of here with their heads high."
Another heartbreak befell Raphael Matos, IndyCar's reigning Rookie of the Year.
The Brazilian had moved up to third from his 12th starting position and was looking very strong going into his pit stop at Lap 67. But as he left his De Ferran Dragon Racing pitbox, his No. 2 HP special suddenly lost the left rear wheel and promptly spun nose-first into the inside pit wall.
He eventually returned to the track with all four wheels, but back in 24th position. On Lap 73, it got even worse, as he lost control in Turn 1 and backed the car into the SAFER Barrier.
The car eventually came to rest in Turn 2 and Matos came out of it all right. But what appeared to be a promising afternoon was in ruins.
"We had some trouble in the pits, and I was trying hard to recover," Matos said. "I got into the marbles, and that was it. I am disappointed for the team because we had a really good car."
His teammate Davey Hamilton had similar rotten luck. On the opening lap, he spun out in Turn 2 while attempting to keep from hitting an oncoming Tomas Scheckter. He wound up hitting the inside wall toward the beginning of the backstretch.
"He just came out of nowhere and we have no spotters in Turn 2," Hamilton said. "We were just coming up the racetrack and there he was, and I just went to avoid him and we got caught up."
Every race carries multiple twists of fate that determine the outcome. For some drivers, those twists work in their favor. But for others, they become victimized because of them.
The next race on the schedule is already looming. But with as much joy the Indianapolis 500 can bring, it also can bring just as much hurt. Wheldon, Castroneves, Matos and Hamilton can attest to that.