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Robbie Wickens finishes first 500 with a flourish and is already looking forward to the next one

Norris McDonald
Written by Norris McDonald

INDIANAPOLIS – Although Australia’s Will Power won Sunday’s Indianapolis 500, the march to the top of the IndyCar mountain continued for Robert (Robbie) Wickens of Guelph, Ont.

Wickens, pictured above earlier this year, will most likely will be named Rookie-of-the-Year at Indianapolis when they make that announcement on Monday. He continues to impress as he drives his way through his rookie IndyCar season.

The Canadian, who’s turned heads for years while racing in Europe in series as diverse as Formula Renault 3.5 single-seat racing cars and the German Touring Car Series (DTM) for sedans, finished ninth in the 500-mile classic Sunday, the best finish for a first-year driver and the top finish in the race for a Canadian.

The other Canadian, Zachary Claman De Melo, of Montreal, wound up 19th although he hovered around the front of the pack for a good part of the race and even led some of the laps. He ran out of fuel with three laps to go or could perhaps have finished higher.

Wickens, who is employed by the Schmidt Peterson Motorsports organization, as is Oakville’s James Hinchcliffe, who failed to qualify for the 500, really turned on the jets during the last 10 laps Sunday and passed 10 cars in the process.

“It was one hell of a race,” he said afterward. “It was an emotional roller-coaster. Early on, I thought we were looking pretty good. But then, on one of the yellows, we went into the pits assuming everybody else would and it turned out that we were one of the few teams to do that. It kind of put us on an alternative strategy and we lost a lot of track position. Today, track position seemed to be everything.”

Although he suffered that yellow-flag misfortune, the end-of-race success already had him thinking of next year’s 500.

“I want to start the next one at the front and finish at the front,” he said. “I’m glad I got into the top ten and that we finished it (the race). I foresaw running in the top ten all day. It was kind of what I had in mind. I thought we were going to keep chipping away and making forward progress but we were making that progress and then we went off strategy and it put us in the back and we struggled all day to get back up there.

“Those last 10 laps, we had nothing to lose. We pitted for fresh tires and went from 19th to ninth and that was the best strategy of the day.

“We had a great car,” he continued. “As soon as we had clean air, we were quick. In fact, we were one of the quicker cars on the track; I could run 221s by myself. It seemed every time I had clean air I was running down cars. It was a long day but luckily the last 10 laps were good fun.”

Wickens has had a strong first season, to date. He nearly won the season-opener in St. Petersburg, Fla., finished second in Phoenix, was running third when his gearbox broke in Long Beach, finished fourth in the Grand Prix of Alabama and made it to the podium two weeks ago in the Grand Prix of Indianapolis.

“We have a lot of momentum,” he said, “and we’re going well. I think today showed how strong we are as a team; we hung in there and we ended up with a top ten out of it.”

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It was hot and humid when the 33 cars took the green flag shortly after noon. The mercury hit 91-degrees Fahrenheit, which was one degree less than the heat record for the race of 92, which was set back in the 1930s. The stands were packed at the start but many empty seats quickly appeared as people either sought shade or else left early to beat the traffic.

The race was broadcast on the radio and shown via tape-delay on local television Sunday night so they probably didn’t miss much.

Ed Carpenter, the pole winner who went on to lead 65 laps, finished second in the race behind Power with Scott Dixon finishing third. Alexander Rossi, who won the 100th anniversary Indy 500 two years ago and who pulled off some amazing passes during Sunday’s race – really doing what no racing driver has done in recent memory, in some cases – was fourth and Ryan Hunter-Reay arrived home in fifth.

Nine cars were eliminated by crashes. Ride-buyer James Davison suffered handling problems early in the race and was clearly having difficulty. At some point, he drifted up into the groove while running about 40 miles an hour slower than everybody else and was run into by defending race champion, Takuma Sato, eliminating both cars.

Ed Jones, Danica Patrick, Kyle Kaiser, Sebastien Bourdais, Helio Castroneves, Sage Karam and Tony  Kanaan all lost control of their cars and spun out on their lonesome.

Kanaan, who is very popular in Indianapolis, mainly because he frequently appears in commercials on local television and makes himself available to the electronic media at the drop of a hat, was clearly disappointed about crashing out.

Patrick, who officially retired when she crashed, was not only disappointed but cranky. She’s had a tough road in both IndyCar and NASCAR; a lot of racing reporters didn’t like her and she knew it. She ended her press conference, which she insisted on holding in mid-race instead of at the end, with these words:

“Thank you, guys. Appreciate everything. I’ll miss you, most of the time. Maybe you’ll miss me, ,just a little. Thanks, guys.”

After Carpenter’s 65 laps in the lead, Will Power led 59, Kanaan led 19, Oriol Servia led 16, Graham Rahal led 12 and Claman De Mel was in front for seven.  Wickens led two.

Power swept the two races at Indianapolis this May – the 500 and the Grand Prix two weeks ago – the first time that has happened. It was the 17th Indy 500 victory for Team Penske – Power’s employer – and the 201st win for that marvelous racing outfit.

Power is now tied with the-retired Al Unser Jr. with 34 victories, good for eighth place on the all-time Indy car win list.

nmcdonald@thestar.ca