With one deft move, Sam Hornish Jr. went from improbable to victorious.
Hornish ducked to the inside coming out of the final turn and passed Marco Andretti as the two cars reached the finish line tonight to win the 90th Indianapolis 500, completing an unlikely run from a costly penalty to triumph.
"We were fast when we needed it," an emotional Hornish said after climbing from the car. "I have to thank God for giving me this talent. It's not just that I can drive fast, but I stayed with it and never gave up.
"It's a great feeling. I wouldn't trade it away for the world. ... It might not go just the way you want it to, but it was much sweeter this way."
The car-length victory was the second-closest margin of victory - 0.0635 seconds - in the history of the race, second only to the 0.043-second difference between Al Unser Jr. and Scott Goodyear in 1992. It also padded team owner Roger Penske's Indy 500 record to 14 victories.
"That was a real finish," Penske said. "I told Sam, 'You've got two laps left here, make the best of it.' You've got to hand it to him; he's a fantastic oval racer. In the end, the driver won the race."
While it ended Hornish's six-race streak of trouble in the race, it also continued the curse of the Andretti family, which is now 1-for-54 in the Indy 500 after yet another disappointment.
Andretti's father, Michael, led on a restart during the 196th lap of the 200-lap race, and Marco, the 19-year-old, third-generation rookie, took the lead two laps later.
"Right now it's a heartbreak, but I think in a couple of days we'll be thinking, 'Wow, what a race," said Michael Andretti, who led with four laps left but finished third. "It was a fairy tale, the dream we all talked about."
The finish, and the fact that Marco Andretti gave Hornish room for the final pass, may have prevented controversy.
On the 199th lap, as Hornish attempted to dive low to pass on Turn 3, Andretti moved down. "The first time I attempted it, he didn't give me any room," Hornish said. "But on the second time - I think they'd warned him about it - but he gave me plenty of room."
Hornish, who was third with three laps remaining, came on strong after Marco passed Michael on the outside heading into Turn 1 on the 198th lap.
Hornish passed Michael Andretti down the backstretch for second place. On the next lap, while heading into Turn 3, Hornish tried to pass Marco for the lead inside, but Marco moved low to prevent the pass.
"I thought it was over when I didn't get past him earlier in three," Hornish said. "But we dug down, put her back in there and took off. For his first time out there, he had a heck of a ride. No matter what happened, he should be very proud of that."
When the two cars came out of Turn 4 on the final lap, Hornish moved the No. 6 Marlboro Team Penske Honda/Dallara to the inside.
Marco initially moved to block, but then held his line as Hornish gained ground and pulled alongside Marco's No. 26 Andretti Green Racing Honda/Dallara. Hornish hit the stripe a car length ahead of the younger Andretti.
"I don't know where that came from," Marco Andretti said. "I could have thrown a block on him, but that's risky. I know from my dad's career that you have to take advantage of every opportunity here. I can't wait to come back."
Michael Andretti, who came out of retirement to mentor his son through his first Indy 500, held on for third place, followed by Dan Wheldon, who led nearly three-fourths of the race, Tony Kanaan, who appeared to be in position to win with 10 laps remaining, and Scott Dixon, who, like Hornish, was penalised and fell out of contention during the late stages.
Dario Franchitti finished seventh - AGR's fourth car among the top seven - followed by Danica Patrick, Scott Sharp and Vitor Meira.
Hornish was assessed a drive-through penalty when the fuel hose got stuck in the car as Hornish left the pits on the 150th lap.
The incident ripped the hose from the nozzle, which stayed attached to the fueling buckeye on the car, and splashed fuel on the fueller, who fell down after the car ran over his feet.
"We just had to clean up and get our senses," Penske said. "I just tried to be calm and keep everyone cool."
Hornish alertly stopped so his crew could remove the nozzle from the car, but his car was halfway out of the pit box. IRL IndyCar Series rules state that a car outside the box with a fuel hose attached must be given a drive-through penalty.
"Not everything went our way today, but we stuck together as a team," Hornish said. "We had a good plan, and we were fast when we needed to be."
The penalty dropped Hornish from second to seventh, but he recovered to end a personal streak in which he hadn't finished the race, nor had he finished better than 14th in six previous Indy 500s.
"It's a great feeling," Hornish said. "I wouldn't trade it for anything else."
The penalty and Hornish's ensuing charge was just a small part of a wild finish that left fans standing and stunned at race's end.
Wheldon, who led 148 laps, appeared to be in command until Kanaan passed him in Turn 3 on the 183rd lap. As the two cars reached Turn 1, Wheldon narrowly averted a spin, apparently caused by a punctured tyre.
"I hate to admit it, but this is what makes the race so exciting," Wheldon said. "We seemed to dominate, so it's disappointing that we got a puncture and had to pit out of sequence."
After Wheldon pitted, Felipe Giaffone hit the wall, bringing out a yellow flag on the 191st lap. At the time, Kanaan was leading Franchitti, but neither car had enough fuel to make it to the finish.
When both drove to the pits, yet another AGR driver, Michael Andretti, inherited the lead, with Marco second, Dixon third and Hornish fourth.
"If it was under my control, I probably would have won it today," said Kanaan, who finished fifth after the late pitstop. "A lot of things need to fall in place together. We'll try it again and again and again. One day we'll get it."
Marco quickly passed his dad for the lead after the restart with four laps remaining, but Hornish - clearly piloting the fastest car on the track - came charging up to challenge the rookie.
"I knew I had a shot at it," Marco said. "I thought if I just defended my line once that I would have had it."
Instead, Hornish took the lead when it counted most. When asked afterward when he knew he'd made the finish-line pass, Hornish replied simply, "I didn't."
He did by the time he got to the traditional drink of milk, and he also understood, as did his boss, the future represented in one amazing finish.
The quickly emerging rookie with the famous name is edged at the finish line by the guy everyone considered the best oval specialist in the business.
"When we got Sam, we knew we had the best oval racer of his time," Penske said. "Everyone kept comparing him to Rick Mears, but we kept wondering when we were going to give him his chance. This was it."
After the victory, Hornish, who grew up in a small Ohio town not far from Fort Wayne, Indiana, and came to the race annually with his father, struggled to maintain his emotions.
"It's tough to put this into words," Hornish said. "There were so many ups and down. It was the three Cs - calm, cool, and collected.
"I knew if I made it to the end that I'd have a chance at it, and I did."
90th Indianapolis 500 results:
Pos Driver Make Laps 1. Sam Hornish Jr Dallara-Honda 200 2. Marco Andretti Dallara-Honda 200 3. Michael Andretti Dallara-Honda 200 4. Dan Wheldon Dallara-Honda 200 5. Tony Kanaan Dallara-Honda 200 6. Scott Dixon Dallara-Honda 200 7. Dario Franchitti Dallara-Honda 200 8. Danica Patrick Panoz-Honda 200 9. Scott Sharp Dallara-Honda 200 10. Vitor Meira Dallara-Honda 200 11. Ed Carpenter Dallara-Honda 199 12. Buddy Lazier Dallara-Honda 199 13. Eddie Cheever Jr Dallara-Honda 198 14. Max Papis Dallara-Honda 197 15. Kosuke Matsuura Dallara-Honda 196 16. Roger Yasukawa Panoz-Honda 194 17. Jaques Lazier Panoz-Honda 193 18. Airton Dare Panoz-Honda 193 19. PJ Jones Panoz-Honda 189 20. Bryan Herta Dallara-Honda 188 21. Felipe Giaffone Dallara-Honda 177 22. Townsend Bell Dallara-Honda 161 23. Jeff Simmons Panoz-Honda 152 24. Al Unser Jr Dallara-Honda 145 25. Helio Castroneves Dallara-Honda 109 26. Buddy Rice Panoz-Honda 108 27. Tomas Scheckter Dallara-Honda 65 28. Arie Luyendyk Jr Panoz-Honda 54 29. Stephan Gregoire Panoz-Honda 49 30. Larry Foyt Dallara-Honda 43 31. Thiago Medeiros Panoz-Honda 24 32. Jeff Bucknum Dallara-Honda 1 33. PJ Chesson Dallara-Honda 1