The pressure on NASCAR to deliver an outstanding Coca-Cola 600 started to build before the garage even opened at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
Sebastian Vettel kicked off auto racing's showcase day on Sunday with a topsy-turvy Formula One victory on Monaco's winding street circuit. Then rookie JR Hildebrand made a heartbreaking mistake to lose the Indianapolis 500 in the final turn of the 100th running of the "Greatest Spectacle in Racing."
The closing act of the tripleheader was NASCAR, which was coming off a ho-hum All-Star race a week earlier.
NASCAR delivered a thriller at the Concord, N.C., track Sunday night that packed more intrigue than anyone could have imagined. The suspense started early and carried all the way to the checkered flag, which went to Kevin Harvick when Dale Earnhardt Jr. ran out of gas on the last lap.
The only way it could have gone better for NASCAR would have been if Earnhardt actually won and snapped his 105-race losing streak.
Instead, Earnhardt faded to seventh.
David Ragan, meanwhile, finished second in a Ford behind the Chevrolet of Harvick. Joey Logano was third in third in a Toyota, and Kurt Busch was fourth in a Dodge.
Earlier in day, at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Hildebrand crashed coming out of the final turn to lose the Indy 500. Both Earnhardt and Hildebrand are sponsored by the National Guard, and the finishes of the two big races spoiled what would have been a celebratory Memorial Day for the military, which makes sponsorship of auto racing its top marketing tool.
Hildebrand was one turn away from winning and within sight of the checkered flag when the 23-year-old made a huge mistake.
Leading by almost 4 seconds with a lap to go, Hildebrand skidded high into the wall on the final turn, and Dan Wheldon drove past to claim an improbable second Indy 500 win in his first race of the year.
"It's a helpless feeling," Hildebrand said.
Wheldon, the 2005 winner but without a full-time ride this season, appeared headed for his third straight runner-up finish when Hildebrand took the white flag needing only to make it through the last of 200 laps around the 2 1/2-mile speedway.
The first three turns went smoothly. Then Hildebrand came up on another rookie, Charlie Kimball, in the fourth turn. Instead of backing off, Hildebrand moved to the outside to make the pass and lost control, slamming the wall to a collective gasp from the crowd of 250,000.
Hildebrand's crumpled machine slid across the finish line, still hugging the wall, in second place. While Wheldon celebrated, IndyCar officials reviewed the video to see if Wheldon passed the wrecked machine before the caution lights went on. He clearly did, and Hildebrand's team, Panther Racing, said it would not protest.
"I just felt a lot of relief. It's an incredible feeling," Wheldon said. "I never gave up."
Vettel, who won the Monaco Grand Prix, was another driver who didn't give up.
The German gambled by staying out on the same set of soft tires, turning the last 15 laps into a battle of wits as both Fernando Alonso and Jenson Button were on his tail.
That gamble looked ready to backfire until a crash on lap 72 resulted in a red flag that suspended the session just as he was close to being caught.
When the Formula One race resumed, Vettel had changed tires, and the last few laps became a procession.
"I saw the only chance to win this race was to try and stay out. I was nearly 20 laps under pressure with Fernando and Jenson behind, it was getting closer and closer," Vettel said.