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Hildebrand eyes Indy redemption

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INDIANAPOLIS -- There have been many great drivers who have come close to winning the Indianapolis 500. Ted Horn, Lloyd Ruby, Michael Andretti, Scott Goodyear, Tony Kanaan and Marco Andretti have all been on their way to victory before falling short for a variety of reasons. None of those drivers ever won the Indy 500.

And then there is JR Hildebrand. All the rookie had to do to put his name in the Indy 500 history books was make it through the final turn on the final lap. But with the checkered flag in reach, Hildebrand lost control of his car and slammed into the wall, allowing Dan Wheldon to drive to Victory Lane.

It was an all-time blunder, on par with Bill Buckner, the Boston Red Sox first baseman whose error in Game 6 of the World Series allowed the New York Mets to score the winning run. The Mets would go on to win Game 7 and Buckner continues to live in infamy.

The comparison isn't lost on Hildebrand.

"I play baseball so I feel for Bill Buckner every time I see that," Hildebrand said.

But unlike Buckner, who would never return to the World Series, Hildebrand has a chance at redemption this Sunday at the 96th running of the Indianapolis 500.

"I think getting back to Indy this year is going to be a pretty intense experience," Hildebrand said. "We're ready for it."

He'll start on the outside of Row 6 after qualifying 18th with a four-lap average of 223.422 miles per hour in a Dallara/Chevrolet for Panther Racing. It wasn't his ideal spot, but he'll make do.

"[A] good starting position in the 500 helps keep you out of the craziness that goes on sometimes, but either way it's a long day. You have to stay out of trouble all 200 laps."

Trouble is what cost Hildebrand the win last year, but rather than sulk about it, he's handled the disappointment like a true veteran.

"I showed to some degree last year after the race it doesn't bother me to talk about this stuff," Hildebrand said. "I'm not going to shy away from it. For me personally, in my first time at going through the Indianapolis 500 we sort of showed that we could just about beat anybody. We are going to roll that into this season and be more aggressive.

"It sucks that is what ended up happening when we had a shot at winning the race but from an optimistic point of view it gave us the confidence that this is our first time doing this and we were damn close. It does give us confidence we can be there in the future and we've had some other runs this year. ... It's things like that that continues to motivate us to be up there and knocking on the door."

Hildebrand's race day last year was no fluke. He led three times for seven laps but was fastest all month in practice and qualified the Panther car 12th on the grid. By utilizing smart race strategy, he put himself in position to win the race in the final laps.

But the question remains, will he ever have another shot at Victory Lane in the "World's Greatest Race"?

"I'd be lying to you if I said I don't think about that occasionally and think I was super close and we realistically might never have a chance of being that close again," he admitted. "I'm not scared to say that is the truth, but to me I know in that moment at the end of the race, when I was two corners from the end, what I was dealing with.

"If you give me the same circumstance again, would I do the exact same thing? No, because that would be ridiculous. But I'm satisfied with how things went down and what happened because of that. In the end it makes me feel like in our first go at it we had the right strategy call and there we were with a shot to win the race."

Hildebrand isn't the first driver to falter right before the finish line.

Michael Andretti holds the record for most laps led by a non-winning driver (431), and in 1991, he fell to Rick Mears in one of the best two-car duels in Indy 500 history. His son, Marco, came within 100 yards of taking the checkered flag before Sam Hornish, Jr. passed him -- the first time the race-winning pass came on the final lap. In 1992, Scott Goodyear lost the 500 to Al Unser Jr. by just 0.043 seconds -- the closest margin of victory in the 101-year history of this speed contest.

Having also come so close, Goodyear can relate to Hildebrand.

"Foremost when you are active, it's heartbreaking, but I looked at it in 1992, and thought: I know how to do this; I can compete with these guys and I'll go back there and win," Goodyear said. "It gave me more confidence and I'm sure JR has more confidence to equal out the disappointment."

But Goodyear, who never did capture an Indy 500 title, cautions that confidence doesn't always equate to checkered flags.

"[I]t might be his only shot. You can go back and be close but that doesn't mean you will win.

"By 1998, when I got to Panther and I was older, I began to think, `Hell, I might not ever win this thing.' At his [Hildebrand's] age, he has to look at it like I did, that it gives him 110 percent confidence and he knows he can compete with these guys and is young and has more shots at it. But he might go back and not be close for five more years with motors blowing and crashes and things like that. Then, he might wonder if that was his only shot.

"Now that I've retired I look back at it as a bigger disappointment today than I did the day it happened because when you walk away from the sport, you don't have that opportunity anymore."

Goodyear ended his full-time IndyCar career driving for Panther Racing -- the team that Hildebrand races for today.

"I don't think anybody -- even veterans -- would have handled the disappointment any better than J.R. did after last year's race," Goodyear said. "People talk to me about what happened to me in the Indy 500 and that doesn't go away until you win the thing. That will be his life -- I'm sure everywhere J.R. goes it's as fresh in his mind as he allows it to be."

Right now, it's not at the forefront of Hildebrand's mind.

"It's not something I don't think about, but it isn't something that keeps me awake at night. When I look back at what happened, I could have made a better decision. But knowing how quickly I had to make a decision I don't have any regret making the decision that I did.

"It's not something that really bugs me."

That might change in a few years. But for now, an even-keeled Hildebrand is focusing solely on Sunday.

"I'm not the type of person that is going to sit here and say `We are going to win the Indy 500 this year; it's unfinished business and we won't quit until we've done it,' because I know that is unrealistic. This is a race that comes to you in some sense. But I have a lot of confidence in our guys to be in position to do it again."

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