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AUTO RACING

Indy 500 near-winner goes out without a pout

It was close but no cigar — yet driver J.R. Hildebrand gets a pat on the back. He and Dale Earnhardt Jr., who ran out of gas on the final lap of a Sprint Cup race, behave with class despite disappointing losses.

May 31, 2011|By Jim Peltz
  • J.R .Hildebrand, right, is consoled by Panther Racing owner John Barnes after finishing second in Sunday's Indianapolis 500.
J.R .Hildebrand, right, is consoled by Panther Racing owner John Barnes… (Tom Strickland / Associated…)

Reporting from Indianapolis — We're all too familiar with the sports stars who, when fate unexpectedly rubs them the wrong way, sulk away from the moment with little if anything to say.

If you're a fan of theirs or just plain interested in what happened, too bad.

So let's pause briefly to take note of two race-car drivers — one a superstar with a massive following and the other an obscure rookie — who displayed, well, professionalism in telling us how they had monumental victories in their grasp Sunday, only to see them grabbed away.

The rookie is J.R. Hildebrand, a 23-year-old from Sausalito, Calif., who came within a few hundred yards of winning the Indianapolis 500.

Not just any Indy 500. The 100th anniversary of the race. In front of more than 200,000. And on Memorial Day weekend with the National Guard as his primary sponsor.

But as Hildebrand entered the final turn on the last lap, he made a tactical error, driving on the far outside lane as he approached slower traffic, and he smashed into the wall.

He managed to keep his crumpled Panther Racing car moving forward toward the checkered flag, but by then, Dan Wheldon had passed him for the victory.

What came next also was surprising. Hildebrand, seemingly mature beyond his age, calmly and patiently described to the media what had just happened and took all questions.

Perhaps his mind hadn't yet processed the enormity of the situation. Perhaps it's simply the nature of Hildrebrand, who graduated from high school in Corte Madera, Calif., with a 4.12 grade-point average.

But at the moment many people were sympathizing with the young driver — the moderator of his post-race interview said he did not "even know where to start" — the driver himself was steering the conversation away from J.R. Hildebrand.

"This is not really about me at this point," he said. "You always try to win. But for me, my disappointment is for the team and for National Guard as a sponsor."

He acknowledged that, of course, "there were a few choice words going through my head at that moment" he hit the wall. And when it was suggested the loss "must be churning you up," he replied: "Yes. If that's a question, yeah."

That was indeed the question of the moment, but Hildebrand said, "It's not really like a personal thing right now."

Then it was the superstar's turn a few hours later.

Dale Earnhardt Jr., his enormous popularity intact despite not winning since mid-2008, ran out of fuel while leading the final lap of the Coca-Cola 600 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race at Charlotte (N.C.) Motor Speedway.

It was heartbreaking for Junior Nation, but Earnhardt didn't run and hide. Despite the drain of competing in NASCAR's longest race of the season and falling just short, Earnhardt urged his fans to keep their chins up.

"The wins are going to come, we just have to keep working," he said. "If we let this bother us too much, we won't improve as much as we should.

"I know there will be disappointment about coming so close tonight, but our fans should be real happy about how we are performing," Earnhardt said. "This was probably, in all honesty, the best turnout of events for us besides winning the race."

Notice the "us" and the "we." Dale Earnhardt Jr. might be one of the most popular and recognizable figures in motor racing, but on a day of huge disappointment, for him the focus was on his team and his fans.

Hildebrand can only imagine what it's like to have Earnhardt's following. But if the way Hildebrand handled himself at the Brickyard is any indication — the way he handled himself much like Earnhardt — he'll get a much clearer idea as he races on.

james.peltz@latimes.com

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