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Wheldon deserves a ride, Danica at her best, more from the Indy 500

INDIANAPOLIS -- It had all the ingredients to be a historic day at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

As the Indy 500 celebrated its centennial, another dramatic chapter in its rich history was added as Dan Wheldon, who led for just the final 1,000 feet of the race, took the checkers and shocked the crowd of over 300,000 that witnessed the annual Memorial Day race.

Heading into the closing laps, it appeared that rookie driver JR Hildebrand would become the first newcomer since Helio Castroneves in 2001 to win the Indy 500. But Hildebrand crashed into the Turn 4 wall with the checkered flag in sight, paving the way for Wheldon's victory.

GALLERY: Centennial Indy 500 highlights

But Wheldon's thrilling win wasn't the only exciting storyline fans walked away with Sunday afternoon. Let's take a look at the Five Things We Learned from the 100th Anniversary of the Indianapolis 500.

1. This truly is a special sporting event

It's not just a race, it's an event. That is why 350,000 spectators from around the world converge on Indiana's capital every Memorial Day weekend for the Indy 500. It's an annual pilgrimage to witness the speed, history and tradition that makes this one of the world's most recognized sporting events. While the Indianapolis 500 has many traditions that seem antiquated, from the aerial bombs that explode in the pre-dawn darkness signaling the opening of the gates to the various marching bands from across the United States that make their way the frontstretch, this is a slice of Americana at its best.

The Indianapolis 500 has also been about blazing speed and racing technology and that is on display every year as race cars zoom down the frontstretch at nearly 230 mph before taking a hard, left-hander into Turn 1. To watch this from the grandstands it is amazing that humans strap themselves into such machines to do something so dangerous. But that is part of the lure of this sport -- to see men and a few women do something that ordinary people cannot do.

That it was the 100th anniversary made this event even more special. Every living driver who has competed in this race was invited back for the Centennial and many of them attended.

There was a living link to the very first Indianapolis 500. Dick Harroun, the 96-year-old son of Ray Harroun attended Sunday's 100th Anniversary. Ray Harroun won the first Indianapolis 500 in 1911.

The unexpected outcome made this an Indy 500 worth remembering. From the Purdue University band playing On the Banks of the Wabash while the cars were lined up on the grid to Jim Nabors singing Back Home Again in Indiana,the ambiance of Indy got your emotions going. The call of "Gentlemen, start your engines" and the rush of the first lap of the race, made the hair on your arms stand up and shot a tingle down your spine.

This isn't just a race -- it's the Indianapolis 500. And that is something that stands the test of time.

2. Dan Wheldon deserves a full-time return to the IndyCar Series

That Dan Wheldon does not have a full-time ride in the IndyCar Series is totally without reason. When he came to the series in 2002, he was a young man from England joining Panther Racing. He would turn that into a ride with Andretti Green Racing in 2004 and won the Indianapolis 500 and the IndyCar Series title in 2005. He took over the No. 10 ride at Target/Chip Ganassi Racing and continued to win races and challenge for titles before he fell out of favor in 2008. Wheldon would leave that team, being replaced by Dario Franchitti at the end of that season. From 2009 to 2010 he drove for Panther Racing and while Wheldon and his team finished second in the Indy 500 both seasons, they didn't win a race.

A dispute between Wheldon and team owner John Barnes over payment led to a mutual separation between the two and Wheldon was out of a full-time ride. Former teammate Bryan Herta, a full-time team owner in the Firestone Indy Lights Series, offered Wheldon a one-time ride in this year's Indianapolis 500. Together, the duo were among the fastest drivers the entire month at the Speedway, but were not among the favorites to win the race.

But one driver who believed Wheldon was a threat was former teammate Scott Dixon, who on Carburetion Day Friday, told me that Wheldon would be a driver that could easily win the Indianapolis 500. Wheldon proved that point on Sunday when he took advantage of rookie driver Hildebrand crashing into the Turn 4 wall heading to the checkered flag to become a two-time winner of the Indy 500.

By leading one time for the final 1,000 feet, Wheldon drove to victory by the shortest distance of any race winner. The only other driver to lead just the final lap was Joe Dawson in 1912.

While it may be difficult to line up a full-time spot for Wheldon -- because teams have already set their drivers for 2011 -- the winner of the Indy 500 should be a featured attraction in every race for the rest of the season.

3. Danica Patrick leads laps in the Indy 500 for the first time since her rookie season

There is something about the Indianapolis 500 that brings out the best in Danica Patrick. She led 19 laps as a rookie in 2005 before finishing fourth to Wheldon in the race. She finished eighth in the next two 500s (in 2006 and 2007) and was competitive in 2008 before being involved in a crash on pit lane with Ryan Briscoe. Patrick became the highest finishing female in this race in 2009 when she was third. She finished sixth last year.

But the nature of the race allowed Patrick to use a fuel strategy near the end that got her into the lead. She was in front of the field for 10 laps before having to pit for fuel with 11 laps to go. She would finish 10th, continuing her impressive string of top-10 finishes in the biggest race of the year.

Patrick has not had a stellar season in IndyCar this year, but her time out front gave her loyal throng of fans plenty to cheer about.

4. Not a good day for Team Penske

Team owner Roger Penske has won the Indianapolis 500 a record 15 times and is generally considered the best in the business. But Sunday's performance from Team Penske's stable of three drivers will not go down as one of Penske's finest. It's the first time, since 1992, that a Team Penske driver did not finish in the top-10 in the Indy 500. Will Power had a wheel come off during his first pit stop and finished 14th. Three-time Indy 500 winner Castroneves was never a factor and had a rear tire shred when he ran through debris and finished 17th. Briscoe crashed on the 158th lap with Townsend Bell and finished 27th.

"It was a tough day, but we've got to execute better," said team owner Roger Penske. "It's a great place to race, but a tough place to win."

Experiencing a day like this only shows how impressive Penske's record is since first fielding an Indy team in 1969. Sometimes, a team owner has to go through the tough times to fully appreciate their accomplishments.

5. The double-file restarts were thrilling

After the IndyCar Series introduced double-file restarts to the series this season it had added another level of excitement to the sport. There was tremendous concern, however, that the Indianapolis Motor Speedway was not the place to go side-by-side on restarts because of its high-speed danger and narrow racing groove.

There were five restarts in the race and the only incident came in the first side-by-side restart when James Hinchcliffe and E.J. Viso crashed when the field went green on lap 28. Although the restart zone was changed on Saturday to the old zone between Turns 3 and 4 (instead of the frontstretch), it allowed the field a chance to spread out going down the frontstretch. But the side-by-side battles often turned into three-wide racing in Turns 1, 2 and down the backstretch. The fans roared their approval.

Although it added much more risk, it also increased the excitement. Can't wait to see more double-file restarts on the ovals the rest of the season.

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