The dramatic finishes for the two popular racing events held on Sunday meant surprising wins for Dan Wheldon in the Indianapolis 500 and Kevin Harvick in the Coca-Cola 600, but in both cases, all eyes were on the leader who lost it in the final seconds. And in both cases, those runners-up were prominently sponsored by the National Guard, making that branch of the military the real winner on wheels.
In the Indianapolis 500, rookie J.R. Hildebrand crashed his formula car on the final lap. Hildebrand was trying to pass fellow rookie Charlie Kimball by going above him when he hit a rough patch of the track and skidded into the wall. Wheldon finished in first, crossing the finish line just before the caution light went on.
In the Coca-Cola 600, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. was in the lead coming out of the final turn but he ran out of gas, allowing Harvick to shoot past him for the NASCAR win. Five other cars passed Earnhardt before the finish line, putting him in seventh place in the end.
Earnhardt new he was close to running out of fuel before the finish. We weren't supposed to make it. We played our hand, Earnhardt said. I tried to save a ton of gas, as much as I could. I'm disappointed we didn't win. To come so close. But if we had won that race, it would have been a gift.
The Army and the Air Force also sponsor racing teams in motorsports. The Marines were a NASCAR sponsor until 2006, when that branch of the military cut its advertising budget.
The Army was instructed by Congress to explore motorsport sponsorships in 2000 as a recruiting tool. But the Army's sponsorship expenditure has come under fire recently, with Rep. Betty McCollum pushing for an amendment to the House spending bill for 2011 cutting the $7 million a year the Army spends on sponsorships in auto racing. The House voted down the measure.
The National Guard's investment was seemingly a wise one, as even casual fans saw their sponsorship of Hildebrand and Earnhardt's cars.
The victory marked the second Indy 500 win for Wheldon in seven years. Danica Patrick was in the lead with about 20 laps to go but faded.
Harvick's win in the Coca-Cola 600 was his third victory of the year. The loss by Earnhardt marks his 105th in a row; the popular driver hasn't won a race since 2008.