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Indy 500 winner: I drove 'like I stole it'

By the CNN Wire Staff
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Indy 500 winner on special victory
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Indianapolis 500 winner Dan Wheldon: I "drove it like I stole it"
  • Race rookie J.R. Hildebrand's crash in the final turn gave Wheldon the win
  • The crash left Hildebrand feeling "helpless"

(CNN) -- Dan Wheldon was rounding the fourth turn in the last lap at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, foot to the floor and focusing on passing a car when he caught something out of the corner of his eye.

What was little more than a blurred glimpse for Wheldon was the center of attention for the thousands in the stands and millions more on television Sunday -- Indianapolis 500 leader J.R. Hildebrand's car grinding against the track's big gray outside wall as he came around the bend, moments from victory.

"As I cleared that car that I was overtaking I noticed that, just in the corner of my eye that he'd got up in the gray and made contact with the outside retaining wall," Wheldon told CNN's "American Morning" on Monday. "And at that point I just focused on making sure that I didn't get caught up in any of the debris, made sure that he didn't come back across the track in front of me."

And then?

Then, Wheldon said, he drove "across the line like I stole it."

The sprint gave the British driver his second Indianapolis 500 victory -- the first came in 2005 -- and a spectacular finish for a race that was once considered among the world's premier sports spectacles, but which has seen its television ratings fall in recent years.

The ratings for Sunday's race, its 100th running, were not yet available. But viewership for the 2010 edition was the lowest since the event was first aired live in 1986, according to the Indianapolis Star. About 4 million people watched last year, according to the newspaper.

In a posting on the race's official blog, Hildebrand said that he sensed his competition was catching up as he neared the final turn and did not want to risk slowing down to avoid a car coming out of the pits. So he opted to move outside, towards the retaining wall.

The move obviously didn't pay off for Hildebrand, who was driving in his first Indy 500 race. The car slipped on what's known in racing circles as marbles -- pieces of soft rubber shed from tires during the race, Hildebrand said.

"It's a helpless feeling driving the race car when you get in a situation like that. It can happen on road courses, it can happen at other places. It's most extreme at a place like this where it truly does turn into a one-groove track towards the end of the-race," the posting quoted Hildebrand as saying. "That was certainly my mistake to have judged it otherwise."

While the finish was a spectacle to remember for race fans, Wheldon said it just goes to show what Indy drivers have long known -- that letting up during a race simply isn't an option.

"With this race, you just never know what can happen, so it's just about staying focused," he said. "And you really don't ever let off the power unless you have to."