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Wednesday, October 13, 2010

IndyCar Season Review: Dan Wheldon

Dan Wheldon's 2010 IZOD IndyCar Series season may have been his most up-and-down campaign to date.

Wheldon's road course results lagged in comparison to his championship competitors, and a lawsuit against his employer, Panther Racing owner John Barnes, to collect back taxes made life difficult for the Englishman. But some world-class oval performances, the suit's resolution, and the chance that he may return to the team next season helped level the good and the bad for the former series champion.

When all was said and done, Wheldon finished ninth in points, one spot better than he had in his first full season with Panther last year.

Wheldon, like a handful of other drivers ahead of him, surprised in the season-opening Sao Paulo Indy 300 with a fifth place finish, but a spectacular wreck at St. Petersburg sucked the momentum out of the team for a time. Wheldon ran mid-pack for the next few races as the old-school IRL driver, with only one career road course win to his name, bided his time in wait for the ovals.

Kansas only yielded a 15th-place finish, two laps down, after a disappointing 25th-place qualifying run. But at Indianapolis, Wheldon and Panther worked their way up from the 18th starting spot to claim second place in the race's closing laps. Wheldon, like leader Dario Franchitti, was on a fuel-saving strategy, and perhaps could have caught him for the win, as the car still had fuel in the tank post-race. Regardless, the second place finish in the sport's biggest race was Wheldon's second in a row, Panther's third in a row, and yielded over $1 million to both.

The team, however, could not quite sustain the momentum for the next few events. Wheldon led a single lap at Texas on the way to a ninth place finish, but could not do much at Iowa (the site of his last victory, in 2008). He was spun at Watkins Glen by Alex Lloyd, but managed to work his way back through the pack for a respectable sixth place finish. Toronto yielded a 10th place run, four spots better than the previous year's finish.

But then came the struggles - a 20th place result at Edmonton, a so-so 14th place at Mid-Ohio, and the icing on the cake, an aborted Sonoma start that saw Wheldon's car upside down before even taking the green flag. Wheldon had been 146 points out of the lead after Toronto, but by the end of the Sonoma race he had lost another 99 points.

At this point, Wheldon and Panther began to turn on the heat. Perhaps it was the addition of Ed Carpenter in a second team car that got Panther rolling. Perhaps it was the knowledge that Wheldon's contract was up after this year and unlikely to be renewed that got him back in the zone. Perhaps it was a mutual dissatisfaction between the two parties over the past two seasons, culminating in a $2.5 million lawsuit for back wages by the driver's management, that had them both motivated to show off for potential new partners. Whatever it was, it worked.

Wheldon, who had won the Chicago race in 2005 and 2006, kicked it into high gear at that event, challenging Franchitti for victory once again and losing the fight by .042 seconds at the line. At Kentucky, Wheldon led 93 laps, most of all drivers, and almost nobody was more deserving of the win; however, Helio Castroneves' unorthodox fuel-saving strategy allowed him to take the victory, with Carpenter second and Wheldon third. By this point it was common knowledge that Wheldon was on the way out at Panther, but any team looking for oval prowess certainly had him in their eyes as a candidate for employment.

Motegi and Homestead also yielded top-10 finishes, but the big news before the season's final race was the settlement of Wheldon's suit against Panther and discussion of Wheldon's potential return for 2011. Whel all was said and done, Wheldon offset a disappointing 12th in the road course standings with a solid sixth in the oval championship, and scored the best points finish of any driver not employed by Roger Penske, Chip Ganassi, or Michael Andretti.

Wheldon's 2010 finishes, relative to 2009's results on the same tracks, were actually worse in most early-season instances. But solid finishes in new events, combined with vast improvements toward the end of the season, helped make Wheldon and Panther a potent late-season combination that actually scored 36 more points this year.

Though few may view the Englishman as a title contender these days, Wheldon's prospects for 2011 may be stronger than they were when he left Ganassi at the end of 2008. If he stays with Panther, the team clearly has their oval program worked out, and the potential addition of a second car will only strengthen the team's results - considering that Wheldon's best three finishes came when Panther was also campaigning a car for Carpenter. A third season with the team may finally see both vault back up the standings into once-familiar territory.

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