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Thursday, March 11, 2010

IndyCar Season Preview: Panther Racing

Panther Racing returns its 2009 lineup to the 2010 IZOD IndyCar Series, bringing back former series champion Dan Wheldon and sponsor National Guard to its No. 4 Dallara-Honda.

Wheldon finished 10th in points in 2009, his worst effort since his 2003 rookie year, which was affected by his missing the first two races of the season. Everything took a major step back from his numbers at Chip Ganassi Racing: he only scored 352 points, he failed to win a race, and he had three DNFs. All of those were his worst numbers since 2003.

However, Panther has not been a dominant team since former CART teams began to shift to IndyCar, and for that team, his numbers were pretty stellar. After a DNF in the season opener at St. Petersburg, Wheldon scored eight consecutive top-10 finishes, buoyed by a second-place at the Indianapolis 500, a race he won in 2005.

The season went downhill from there, however, as Wheldon only scored one more top-10. It has now been 27 races since Wheldon's last win, at Iowa in 2008, which is his longest career winless streak.

One positive aspect that came out of 2009 is the team's marketing efforts with partner National Guard, which became some of the strongest in the league. The National Guard brings servicemen to most races on the schedule, with such draws for the fans as a racing simulator and a miniature shooting range, as well as lots of free gear. Despite his British nationality, Wheldon makes an effective pitchman for the brand, having appeared in one IndyCar commercial as a drill sergeant.

Returning the same team that ran last year should help their cause, as driver and crew now have a year's worth of chemistry to build upon. Skipping the season-opening test in Alabama in lieu of a single-car session at Sebring, however, means that we'll have to wait until the season begins to see how fast Panther is compared to the rest of the field.

If they can return to their early-season form from 2009, Panther should contend for a couple of race wins and return Wheldon to the top five in points. Otherwise, Wheldon may be in for another long year of seeing victory just out of his reach.

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