After parking in Victory Lane, Alexander Rossi removed his helmet and sat motionless in his race car for a moment, seemingly to fully grasp what had just happened.
And why not? Rossi, 24, had won the 100th running of the Indianapolis 500 as a rookie after a stunning turn of events in the closing laps.
The native of Nevada City, Calif., inherited a sizable lead after front-runners Tony Kanaan, Josef Newgarden and Carlos Munoz were forced to pull into the pits for a splash of fuel.
Rossi’s car also was running out of fuel on the final lap, and he slowed sharply as he approached the checkered flag at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
But Rossi had just enough speed left to cross the finish line and become the first rookie to win the famed open-wheel race since Helio Castroneves in 2001.
“I just can’t believe that we’ve done this,” Rossi said after taking the winner’s traditional drink of milk. “I’m just so thankful.”
Munoz, a teammate of Rossi’s, finished second. Newgarden was third and Kanaan, who won the Indy 500 in 2013, finished fourth. Charlie Kimball, from Camarillo, was fifth.
“I really think we had a shot,” Newgarden said. “It just didn’t fall our way.”
Tony Kanaan leads a pack of drivers through a turn late during the 100th Indy 500.(Jamie Squire / Getty Images)
Alexander Rossi’s pit crew services his car during a pit stop for the 100th Indy 500 on Sunday.(Rob Baker / Associated Press)
Pole-sitter James Hinchcliffe (5) and Ryan Hunter-Reay (28) battle for the lead early in the Indy 500 race on Sunday.(Jamie Squire / Getty Images)
Ryan Hunter-Reay leads a pack of cars through a turn during the 100th running of the Indianapolis 500 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.(Robert Laberge / Getty Images)
Pole-sitter James Hinchcliffe leads the field into the first turn on the start of the 100th running of the Indianapolis 500.(R. Brent Smith / Associated Press)
Lady Gaga and Mario Andretti do a double fist-bump before they take a lap in the two-seater IndyCar during pre-race ceremonies for the 100th running of the Indianapolis 500.(Kerry Keating / The Indianapolis Star via AP)
Car owner David Letterman applauds during driver introductions before the 100th running of the Indianapolis 500.(Darron Cummings / Associated Press)
Four F-18E fighter jets perform a flyover before the start of the 100th running of the Indianapolis 500.(Jeff Roberson / Associated Press)
A digitally converted black-and-white image features the one-yard wide strip of brick on the front stretch at Indianapolis Motor Speedway the morning of the Indy 500.(Jonathan Ferrey / Getty Images)
Celebrities arrive on the red carpet at Indianapolis Motor Speedway before the 100th running of the Indy 500.(Jamie Squire / Getty Images)
While the low-key Rossi benefited from his rivals’ fuel-mileage woes, his victory was not an accident.
Rossi initially set his sights on the Formula One racing series, and he reached that circuit last year when he raced in the season’s final five races for the Manor Marussia team.
But after he failed to secure the seat for this year, he moved to the Verizon IndyCar Series, and Sunday he drove in a car prepared by the veteran IndyCar teams of Andretti Autosport and Bryan Herta Autosport.
Rossi started the race 11th in the 33-car field and, at one point, recorded the fastest lap of the race at 225.288 mph. He also stayed near the front until he could exploit the fuel-mileage battle.
“You can’t undervalue what he did all month,” Newgarden said.
Still, Rossi “had never seen this place until like a couple of months ago,” said team owner Michael Andretti.
“He really went to school and used his teammates and learned every day throughout the month,” Andretti said. “I saw he was very confident going into the race.”
Until Rossi inherited the lead, it appeared Kanaan, Newgarden and Munoz would decide the race as they kept swapping the lead.
“I’m just sad and really disappointed,” said Munoz, a 24-year-old Colombian. “I knew I didn’t have enough fuel. Half a lap short.”
As in recent years, the racing at the Indy 500 was close. There were 54 lead changes and the top six or seven cars often were separated by less than two seconds.
Mike Conway of England crashes in the third turn in the closing laps of the Indianapolis 500 on May 30, 2010,(James Miller / Associated Press)
A burning tire, left, flies toward spectators after a gasoline tank explosion resulting from a crash on the fourth turn on the second lap of the 48th running of the Indianapolis 500 on May 30, 1964.(Bob Daugherty / Associated Press)
The feet of Salt Walther protrude from his car (77) after a crash during the Indianapolis 500 on May 28, 1973. Walther survived the crash.(Charles A. Robinson / Associated Press)
Swede Savage’s car is in flames after a crash during the Indianapolis 500 on May 30, 1973. Drivers Art Pollard, Savage and crew member Armando Teran were killed while Salt Walther, somehow survived a frightening, pin-wheeling crash. Savage died more than a month after the race.(Associated Press)
Eddie Rickenbacker, center, signs papers selling the Indianapolis Motor Speedway to Anton “Tony” Hulman Jr., left, as Wilbur Shaw, right, and T.E. Myers look on in Indianapolis on Nov. 14, 1945. Three weeks after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Rickenbacker canceled the 1942 race. The federal government banned automobile racing in July 1942, and when the war ended in 1945, the track was in disrepair. Hulman, a businessman from Terre Haute, Ind., bought the track in November 1945 and refurbished it in time for the 1946 race. His descendants still run the track.(Associated Press)
This 1945 photo provided by Indianapolis Motor Speedway shows the speedway in disrepair. Indianapolis Motor Speedway closed its doors to racing in 1917 and 1918 because of World War I, but it was the closure during World War II that posed the biggest threat to the historic venue. Three weeks after the attack on Pearl Harbor, speedway President Eddie Rickenbacker canceled the 1942 race. The federal government banned automobile racing in July 1942, and when the war ended in 1945, the track was in disrepair.(AP)
Parnelli Jones, center, celebrates his victory in the 47th running of the Indianapolis 500 auto race in front of the Borg-Warner Trophy on May 30, 1963. Jones can remember his 1963 triumph like it happened last week. “It was just a tremendous thrill,” he said. “You work so hard to get there. I woke up early the next morning and looked in the mirror to make sure I wasnít dreaming. The Indy 500 makes you.”(Associated Press)
Mario Andretti takes the checkered flag as he wins the 53rd running of the Indianapolis 500 auto race on May 30, 1969.(Associated Press)
Andy Granatelli, center left, kisses Mario Andretti after Andretti won the Indianapolis 500 on May 30, 1969.(Associated Press)
Tony Hulman, left, and A.J. Foyt wave to fans during a victory lap after Foyt won his fourth Indianapolis 500 on May 29, 1977.(Associated Press)
Danny Sullivan, left, spins in front of Mario Andretti during the 69th running of the Indianapolis 500 on May 29, 1977. When asked for their most memorable moment, several recalled their earliest memories, “The biggest thing I really remember was sitting up in the grandstands of Turn 1, and you are just enjoying the time with my mom and dad and the beautiful weather and watching cars,” said 2006 champion Sam Hornish Jr. “One of those was [Danny] Sullivan spinning and winning it [in 1985]. So that wasn’t bad.”(Associated Press)
Al Unser raises four fingers after winning his fourth Indy 500 on May 24, 1987. Long before he won the Indianapolis 500, Unser was an up-and-coming 25-year-old sprint car driver who had showed up at Indianapolis Motor Speedway to watch his older brother try to qualify. Unser still remembers the feeling of awe when he drove through the tunnel beneath the track.(Mike Conroy / Associated Press)
IndyCar driver JR Hildebrand reacts next to track safety personnel after crashing on the final lap of the Indianapolis 500 on May 29, 2011.Dan Wheldon of England won the race. In a survey of the 27 living winners of the Indy 500, The Associated Press found the 1992 race won by Al Unser Jr. to be the greatest in history. Other memorable races included Little Al’s loss to Emerson Fittipaldi in ’89, Sam Hornish Jr.'s victory in 2006 and the second win for the late Wheldon in 2011.(Paul Sancya / Associated Press)
Marco Andretti, left, his father and car owner, Michael Andretti, right, and his grandfather Mario Andretti talk in the pit area on the first day of qualifications for the Indianapolis 500 on May 10, 2008. Amazingly, the Andrettis have not driven into Indyís victory lane for more than 45 years.(Tom Strattman / Associated Press)
IndyCar driver Dan Wheldon of England, douses himself with milk after winning the Indianapolis 500 on May 29, 2011. The unusual beverage choice, after a race that lasted hours, was embraced by dairy farmers and has become one of the most unique traditions in sports.(Darron Cummings / Associated Press)
One of the largest Indy 500 crowds in recent memory, more than 300,000 spectators, witnessed Rossi’s win. With this being the race’s centennial, the event was sold out.
“I am humbled to experience this atmosphere today at this place that is packed,” Kanaan said, adding that he also drove “the best race of my life” despite finishing fourth, “probably even better than when we won in 2013.”
Pole-sitter James Hinchcliffe, making a comeback since being severely injured in a practice crash before the Indy 500 a year ago, was strong all day but finished seventh.
There were several accidents Sunday but none of the drivers was seriously injured.
Takuma Sato hit the outside wall and finished 26th, as did Mikhail Aleshin (27th) and Sage Karam (32nd).
Just past the halfway point, Townsend Bell and former Indy 500 winner Ryan Hunter-Reay -- who were leading at the time -- collided while leaving pit row and ruined their chances at winning.
And defending Indy 500 winner Juan Pablo Montoya spun and crashed on Lap 64.
Rossi said it was “no secret” that his “goal was to get to Formula One” but that he was “ecstatic” be in the IndyCar series instead, especially now that he’s won the Indy 500.
“It’s obviously a huge honor and privilege, something I’m going to carry with a great sense of responsibility,” he said.
Although Formula One remains elusive, Rossi added, “I think it worked out just fine at the end of the day.”