2011 Indy 500: JR Hildebrand and the 10 Biggest Collapses in Sports History
He could see the finish line in front of him.
Rookie driver JR Hildebrand was just one turn away from accomplishing something other drivers spent a lifetime attempting to do: win the Indianapolis 500.
Through a combination of strategy and good fortune, Hildebrand held a comfortable lead over one-time Indy 500 winner Dan Wheldon as he entered Turn 4.
All he needed to do was successfully navigate around the turn, just like he had done the other 799 turns earlier in the race, and he would be drinking the famous milk jug in Victory Lane.
But whether it was panicking with a lapped car to his left, or being overcome with adrenaline, or a combination of both, Hildebrand slammed his car into the wall, and helplessly watched Wheldon pass him, as his destroyed car rolled over the finish line.
The fact he still finished second was a testament to just how big of a lead he had over the field, considering he crossed the finish line with only two working wheels.
While Wheldon's victory was certainly a feel good story, it's the failure of Hildebrand that will be long remembered from this race.
Years from now, his wreck will be shown in highlight reels of the best Indy 500 finishes along the likes of the split second conclusion of the 1992 race with Al Unser Jr. and Scott Goodyear.
But is Hildebrand's wreck really the worst choke job ever? Here is a look at the 10 biggest collapses in sports history.
10) 2010: Bruins Cough Up 3-0 Series Lead and Three-Goal Lead in Game 7
Many Bruins fans were prone to knee-jerk reactions in the 2011 playoffs when they saw their beloved B's lose a game. After seeing their epic collapse of last season, you could understand why.
After upsetting the Buffalo Sabres in the first round of the playoffs, the Bruins enjoyed home ice against the Philadelphia Flyers despite being a six seed.
They roared out of the gates, taking a quick 3-0 in the series and it looked all but over for the Flyers, as only two teams in NHL history had come back from that kind of deficit to win.
But the Flyers did not quit, won three games and got themselves to a Game 7. Their run looked like it would come up short, though, when the Bruins took quick 3-0 lead in the first period. However, the Flyers again did not quit and managed to tie the game after two periods.
With just over seven minutes to go, Simon Gagne notched the game-winner sending his team to the Conference Finals, while the Bruins were left wondering what had just happened.
It was one thing to see the Bruins lose four in a row. It was quite another to see Game 7 be such a microcosm of the entire series, as the team allowed the Flyers to score four straight goals, on the road no less.
The good news is for Bruins fans, is their team used that collapse as motivation this year as the Bruins are getting ready to face the Vancouver Canucks in the Stanley Cup Finals.
9) 1993: Jana Novotna Sees 4-1 Third-Set Lead Disappear and Loses Wimbledon
Jana Novotna is the type of athlete that isn't appreciated after they retire. She won Wimbledon in 1998, 12 Grand Slam doubles titles and 4 in mixed doubles. In her career, she won over $11 million and was inducted into the tennis Hall Of Fame in 2005.
Despite all of these accolades, the only thing she will likely be remembered for is her choke at the 1993 Wimbledon Final when she lost to the great Steffi Graf.
After a close first set in which she lost 6-7, Novotna stormed her way through the second, winning 6-1 and held a commanding 4-1 lead in the third and final set. Serving at 40-30, she was only five points from her first Grand Slam title.
That's when the wheels fell off the bus. The greatness that Novotna displayed that match quickly went away as Novotna missed easy shot after easy shot. When you give that kind of opening for someone like Graf, it doesn't end well.
After breaking Novotna's serve in the sixth game of the set, she didn't look back, winning the last four and winning that deciding set 6-4.
While the crowd was happy to see Graf win her 13th championship, the also empathized with Novotna who was rightfully distraught after giving the match away.
The shot of Novotna crying on the shoulders of the Duchess of Kent at the trophy ceremony is something we see on highlight reels to this day.
8) 2003: Steve Bartman's Grab Convinces Cubs They Are Cursed
Cubs fans were ready to break out the champagne.
It had been 58 years since the Cubs had gone to a World Series and 95 since they won it in 1908. On a cool night in Chicago, Cubs pitchers and at that time, savior Mark Prior was pitching masterfully, shutting out the Florida Marlins for over seven innings.
With one out and a man on, a foul ball was struck near the Cubs bullpen area. The ball was coming close to the stands, but it looked as if Cubs left fielder Moises Alou could make a play on the ball.
As he was about to hop up to catch the ball, Cubs fan Steve Bartman inexplicably reached out to catch the ball, blocking Alou. Neither man caught it, as the ball rolled into the crowd.
As Bartman was getting food, beer and who knows what else thrown at him, the entire Cubs roster suddenly felt the weight of 95 years of futility fall on their shoulders.
A lethal combination of poor pitching, fielding and decision-making turned what was to be a celebration into a living nightmare.
The Marlins scored eight runs that inning, won the game 8-2 and then went on to crush the Cubs in Game 7.
Following the game, as many as six police cars set up outside Bartman's home, whose information was immediately put on message boards. While it was the Cubs on the field that blew the game, fans to this day blame this man for their most recent failures to get to the World Series.
7) 1986: "Behind the Bag!" Bill Buckner's Error Adds to Red Sox Woes
If any team could have felt the pain that Cubs fans endured, it was Red Sox fans. Going through their own sorts of curses, the Red Sox were just one out away from winning the 1986 World Series against the New York Mets.
Red Sox nation rejoiced when they scored two runs in the 10th inning as it looked like finally, the Red Sox would win a long awaited championship.
The Mets had other plans though. Just one out from winning it all, the Red Sox gave up three two-out singles to see the Mets tie it. That brought up Mookie Wilson, one of the faster players in baseball at the time.
After fouling off numerous pitches, Wilson sent a slow-moving ground ball to first place towards the normally sure-handed Bill Buckner.
Taking into account the speed of his opponent, Buckner rushed the ball instead of letting it come to him.
Unfortunately for him, and all of Boston, the ball dribbled through his legs into right field and the Mets improbably won the game.
Like the Cubs in '03, the Red Sox went on to lose Game 7. Unlike the Cubs though, the Sox exorcised their demons and curses by winning the World Series in 2004.
6) 2007: Tony Romo's Dropped Snap Costs Cowboys the Playoffs
Tony Romo is a peculiar quarterback in the NFL that has a host of passionate supporters and detractors alike.
While he often shows flashes of brilliance, he'll just as surely make a mistake that makes fans in Dallas slap their palms on their collective foreheads.
One of those moments came during the Divisional playoffs against the Seattle Seahawks.
Down 21-20 with just seconds remaining, Romo had engineered a strong drive that put the Cowboys on the two-yard line.
Needing just a 19-yard field goal by Martin Gramatica to win, the Cowboys were already getting ready to travel to Chicago for next week's game. After all, this field goal was no further than an extra point.
It was going to be the first big win for Romo in the playoffs. All he needed to do now was hold a snap, which he had done hundreds upon hundreds of times in his football life.
The problem was Romo didn't handle the snap, instead fumbling it to the ground. While Romo valiantly attempted to run the ball into the end zone, he was ultimately stopped. His dropped snap cost the Cowboys the game and the season.
While Romo has enjoyed moderate success in his career, it's blunders like the one in the 2007 playoff game that makes Cowboy fans wonder if he's truly their elite quarterback of the present and future.
5) 2004: New York Yankees See The Curse Reversed
For decades, the New York Yankees enjoyed success. Winning far and away the most World Series championships in baseball history, they enjoyed their dominance over their major rival the Boston Red Sox, who had not won a World Series since 1918.
There are those who claim it was due to the Red Sox giving away Babe Ruth for essentially nothing.
The latest example of this curse came the year before in 2003 when the Sox lost Game 7 of the ALCS despite leading the game 5-2 late in the game.
When the Yankees took a 3-0 series lead in the 2004 ALCS, it just seemed like business as usual. The Yankees were going to go to yet another World Series while the Red Sox faithful would have to watch in misery yet again as their hated rivals tasted even more success.
However, something changed in Game 4. The script that was written for the Yankees somehow changed and it all started with a little known speedster named Dave Roberts. Trailing in the ninth, Roberts stole second base and later wound up tying the game when Bill Mueller hit a single.
Two innings later in the 11th inning, David Ortiz hit a walk-off home run that kept the Sox alive. Boston didn't look back from this game. Another narrow victory in Game 5, Curt Schilling's bloody sock game in Game 6, and a dominating performance in Game 7 propelled the Red Sox into their first World Series since 1986.
The Sox went on to win that series, sweeping the St. Louis Cardinals. More importantly than that though, they ended their curse against the Yankees.
For New York, their collapse in 2004 ended whatever mental edge they held against Boston. Since this series, both teams have won an additional World Series and are now truly looked at as equals.
4) 2011: JR Hildebrand's Last-Turn Folly Costs Him the Indy 500
Hildebrand's collapse may not be the worst in history, but it's not far from it. We've seen some drivers blow it at the end of the race, whether it's due to running out of gas (just look at Dale Earnhardt Jr. in the Coca Cola 600), or wrecking into competitors.
You rarely though have ever seen a driver wreck his car though when there was no one around him, and it's certainly never happened at a race of such prominence.
To his credit, Hildebrand has remained remarkably calm and upbeat given what he gave up on turn number 800 of the race.
However, years from now, networks will be replaying his wreck as an example of "anything can happen" at the end of the Indy 500.
From the little people have seen of Hildebrand, it can be seen that this driver probably will have other opportunities to win the big one. One can only hope that his career is not defined by his mistake on one single turn.
3) 1993: Buffalo Bills Spot Houston Oilers a 32-Point Lead, Yet Still Win
This game brings back personal memories for me, as I was on vacation at Lake George, N.Y., eating at a Mexican restaurant while this game was on in the background.
The Houston Oilers were a Super Bowl-contending team led by eventual Hall of Famer Warren Moon. Traveling to Buffalo to play against a Bills team that had been to consecutive Super Bowls, the Oilers dominated the home team like few fans had ever seen.
Less than two minutes into the third quarter, Bills backup quarterback Frank Reich threw a pass that was intercepted by Bubba McDowell and returned 58 yards for a touchdown, giving the Oilers a 35-3 lead.
It was all but over for Buffalo, except, the Bills did not give up on this game. Instead they scratched and clawed their way back into the contest. While the Oilers offense began to fizzle, Reich and running back Thurman Thomas caught fire and out of nowhere, the Bills could not be stopped.
With 3:08 left in the game, Reich threw a touchdown pass to Andre Reed to give the Bills an improbable 38-35 lead. The Oilers did not quit though, as kicker Al Del Greco kicked a game tying field goal to send the game into overtime.
In the extra frame though, the choke of the Oilers would be fully cemented. Warren Moon threw an interception to Bills cornerback Nate Odomes and after a 15 yard facemask penalty on the return, put the Bills on the Oilers 20 yard line.
After two small runs, kicker Steve Christie kicked the Bills into history, as they completed the single greatest comeback in NFL playoff history.
The Oilers franchise would never recover from this loss. They did have one more good season in 1993, but it was never the same for Houston. Warren Moon left, the rest of the team was broken up and fans stopped going.
Four years after their epic collapse, the Houston Oilers moved to Tennessee.
Not all was completely loss for die-hard Oilers fans that continued to watch their franchise in the Volunteer state.
They got to exact some revenge in 1999 when the Titans completed the "Music City Miracle" play against that same Bills team.
The Bills have not been to the playoffs since.
2) 1942: Detroit Red Wings Surrender 3-0 Series Lead to Lose Stanley Cup
While many of these collapses are from recent years, this one happened 69 years ago.
The Detroit Red Wings took a 3-0 series lead over the Toronto Maple Leafs, and looked to be rolling on to some revenge after getting swept themselves the year before against the Boston Bruins.
However, the Maple Leafs, after making numerous line-up changes in which four of their stars were benched, narrowly won Game 4. They then rocked Detroit to the tune of a 9-3 win in Game 5.
After shutting the Wings out 3-0 in Game 6, they played Game 7 in Toronto in front of over 16,000 fans, at the time, the largest crowd to ever watch a game in Canada. Toronto won that game 3-1 and completed a historic comeback.
For Detroit, the issues could be traced to famous coach Jack Adams, who was suspended after Game 3 due to violence. The team clearly was not the same after his suspension.
The first Stanley Cup Final to ever go seven games, the 1942 series has still left its mark on sports history. It's rare enough to see any team come back from a 3-0 series deficit. However, no team since the Maple Leafs have done it in the finals.
1) 1999: Jean Van de Velde Swings, Putts and Chokes a Title Away
Jean Van de Velde was a fairly unknown golfer from France when he came from nowhere to dominate the 1999 British Open at Carnoustie for 71 holes.
He expertly played the course against the world's best players and heading to the 18th tee in the final round, he held a three-shot lead. Even better news for Van de Velde, he had birdied the 18th hole in two of the previous rounds.
All he needed to do on this day was play it safe, and the British Open was his. On this par four, he had six putts to win. Despite all of this, he decided to go with his driver, which was the start of his disastrous hole.
The drive itself wasn't horrid though it did end up in the rough near water. His second shot though was when the tragedy began.
Choosing to try and get to the green instead of laying up, Van de Velde's second shot sliced to the right and awkwardly struck the grandstands in such a way that the ball traveled dozens of feet backwards into deep rough.
Van de Velde again chose to be brash and hit for the green, except this time his swing got so tangled in the rough, his ball "flew" mere yards into what looked like a small creek called the Barney Burn.
Debating whether to shockingly hit the ball out of the water, he decided to take a drop. Amazingly, he still had a chance to win the championship, but those hopes began to disappear when his fifth shot weakly went into a sand trap near the 18th hole.
To his credit, Van de Velde hit the ball out of the sand, and one putted his way to a playoff. The problem is, it took him six shots to even get to the green.
Van de Velde went on to lose the Championship to an equally unknown golfer in Paul Lawrie. The fans in attendance were in a state of shock and sympathy seeing someone play so well for 71 holes, only to choke it away at the end.
Though he's still a professional golfer in Europe, little has been heard from Van de Velde since. He will never be forgotten, though, as he was responsible for the biggest collapse in sports history.
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