Heartbreak For 'Guard' Cars
By: Pete Pistone - @PPistone | MRN.com on May 31, 2011 | 9:51 A.M. EST
National Guard sponsored cars encountered last-lap misfortune at both Charlotte and Indianapolis. (Photos: Getty Images)
Cars sponsored by the National Guard had chances to win at both Indianapolis and Charlotte on Sunday before encountering heartbreak on the last lap.
JR Hildebrand and Dale Earnhardt Jr. were within sight of the checkered flag in the Indianapolis 500 and Coca-Cola 600 only to have disaster strike just seconds before crossing the finish line.
Rookie Hildebrand looked like he would become the first freshman to win at Indy since Helio Castroneves turned the trick in 2001. But the Panther Racing driver slid out of the racing groove and slammed the outside retaining wall in turn four heading to the finish line to open the door for Dan Wheldon to speed by and score his second career 500 win.
The 23-year-old California native made no excuses for fumbling what would have certainly been the highlight of his racing career.
“I felt like I just made a mistake, and it (hurt) our boys,” Hildebrand said. “I guess that’s why rookies don’t win the Indianapolis 500 a whole lot.”
Hildebrand chalks up the turn of events that led to his demise simply to lack of experience.
"Is it a move that I would do again?” Hildebrand said. “No.”
Veteran team owner John Barnes remained behind his young driver and despite the disappointment continued to support Hildebrand and his overall performance on Sunday.
“I’m sure he’s down,” Barnes said. “He (doesn’t) need to be down. He has nothing to be ashamed about or upset about. Stuff happens here. We’re proud of him.”
Earnhardt was close to ending his nearly three-year winless drought in Sunday’s longest race of the NASCAR season when his fuel tank came up empty only a turn away from the finish line.
As the Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet sputtered to the inside of the track, Kevin Harvick was the beneficiary and took his third win of the season leaving Earnhardt to settle for a bitter seventh place finish.
Despite the frustration, Earnhardt stood by the decision of crew chief Steve Letarte to try and extend their fuel mileage to the end of the race in hopes of getting to Victory Lane.
“I just do whatever my dang crew chief says, and I believe that was the right call,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “If we would have pitted … we would have finished wherever David Ragan finished, and that was in front of us.
“But we had to try it. Think about it, man. Winning the 600. That would be awesome. I had to try.”
Letarte also didn’t back down from his call and his quest to get Earnhardt to victory lane for the first time since Michigan in 2008.
“We come to get trophies,” Letarte said. “If you want to win – you have to ask yourself, ‘Did you come to run in the top 10 or did you come to win?’ We came to win and we ran out of gas between three and four run seventh. If I had to do it all over again, I would have slowed him down more in the green-flag run before the caution.”
Overall after the events of the day, Earnhardt felt for his sponsor and the misfortunes of Memorial Day weekend 2011.
“It’s a tough two races today for the National Guard,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “I hope they don’t feel too slighted by the fortunes we had. That kid did a lot this morning in the Indy race and they should be real proud of their efforts.”