What’s Next For Dan Wheldon?
After the Kentucky race, Dan Wheldon confirmed what most had been suspecting since midway through the 2009 season. He and Panther Racing will probably part ways at the end of this season. I throw in the qualifier of “probably”, because John Barnes of Panther Racing still insists that Wheldon is one of the options they are still considering for 2011. Most agree, however, that Wheldon will be elsewhere next March when the green flag waves at St. Petersburg.
Wheldon is quickly wearing out his welcome at as many teams as Tomas Scheckter. In fact, Wheldon made the same move from the No. 10 Target car to the No. 4 Panther car that Scheckter made in 2004. Scheckter, at least, produced a win at Panther before moving further down the IndyCar ladder. Scheckter then spent the next two years at Vision Racing before becoming a part-timer for Luczo-Dragon in 2008, then a complete hack for any team that would take his Mona Vie sponsorship from race to race. Is Wheldon headed down the same path?
Wheldon came onto the IndyCar scene with this same Panther team in 2002, when he drove a second Panther Racing car in the final two races of the season, finishing tenth and fifteenth respectively. He was tabbed by Michael Andretti to take over the third AGR car, following Michael’s planned retirement after the 2003 Indianapolis 500. Wheldon actually began driving that season at Indy, landing on his head in the north chute during the waning laps. Wheldon finished the 2003 season in strong fashion, racking up two third place finishes as well as a fourth in the final three races. He was certainly one to watch for 2004.
Entering his first full season of IZOD IndyCar Series competition, Wheldon did not disappoint. For the first three races of 2004, Wheldon scored two third place finishes as well as his first career victory at Motegi – giving Honda their first long-awaited victory at their home track. He followed that win with a third place finish at Indianapolis, and chalked up two more wins en route to a runner-up finish for the championship.
Wheldon threw down the gauntlet early in 2005, winning four of the first five races – including the Indianapolis 500. He finished the season with two more late wins and won the championship to go with his Indy victory. Dan Wheldon was on top of the racing world. His teammates appeared fond of him, most fans adored him and he had asserted himself as one of the premier drivers in the league.
For whatever reason, he decided to leave the Andretti-Green Racing team that had given him his big break. Instead, he would spend 2006 at Target Chip Ganassi Racing – a team that had struggled mightily for the previous two seasons, while saddled with the woefully underpowered Toyota engine. Wheldon looked like a genius when he won the first race with his new team at Homestead. However, he never won again until the final race of the season. Still, he had a very strong season laced with several second place finishes on his way to another second place in the season standings.
The next two seasons produced two wins each, as Wheldon finished a respectable fourth in the standings for both seasons. Unfortunately for Wheldon; his teammate, Scott Dixon, was posting much better results and finished second and first in the standings for 2007 and 2008. Plus, Dixon was able to achieve better results with far less drama than Wheldon. While Dixon would put up with cameras in his face, Wheldon seemed to seek them out. Wheldon was a magnet for attention and didn’t seem to mind blaming his crew for a loss, while Dixon quietly went about his business. If anyone was going to be loud and outspoken at Target Chip Ganassi Racing, it would be Chip Ganassi himself.
You always got the sense that Ganassi put up with Wheldon’s attention-getting, prima donna ways as long as he was winning. If that ever stopped – look out. After a long, drawn-out public drama; Wheldon was finally cut loose at the end of the 2008 season. He landed back at Panther, in what he termed as a homecoming. Is it really a homecoming if he only drove two races there in 2002?
Aside from three top-five finishes at Panther in 2009, things didn’t go well. The second half of the season produced a six race stretch that saw Wheldon finish anywhere from eleventh to twenty-second. There was palpable tension between Wheldon and the team and a lot of unhappy faces – on Wheldon in particular. Although the results have been slightly better this season, it’s pretty much been more of the same.
Now Wheldon has let us all know via Twitter that he plans to be elsewhere in the IZOD IndyCar Series in 2011. The big question is – where will he go? The silly season seems to be a little dormant right now, but all it takes is for one domino to fall and it will be in full swing. Some have speculated that he might go back to Andretti Autosport. Even if they had an open seat, I don’t see that happening. Others have mentioned replacing Mike Conway at Dreyer & Reinbold, where Wheldon’s oval skills and Justin Wilson’s road course prowess would compliment each other. That’s possible, but I’m not aware that Dreyer & Reinbold is going to replace Conway. Plus, who’s to say that Justin Wilson will still be there next year? He may, but I believe his contract is up at the end of this season also. There have also been rumblings that Wheldon may be in line for Rafa Matos’ seat at de Ferran Dragon Racing, but I think that has no substance behind it.
As I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, I think the best place for Wheldon is KV Racing Technology. While Wheldon has deep ties to Honda, I think his British ancestry would serve him well with that team’s connection with Lotus. It would be a natural to have Dan Wheldon driving a British racing green Lotus – much more so than Takuma Sato in the historic green livery of Jim Clark. Wheldon doesn’t have the reputation of being too terribly hard on equipment, which would be a welcomed change for a team that has experienced thirty-three crashes this season, with two races to go.
I still maintain that KV Racing Technology needs to scale back to a two-car team. Wheldon would be the lead driver, with a budding star as a teammate. Wheldon claimed to be ecstatic when he went to Panther, because he wouldn’t have a teammate. That didn’t work out so well. At KV, Wheldon could assume the role as elder statesman and a mentor. Regardless of his recent results, Wheldon is a former champion and an Indianapolis 500 winner. That brings a lot of credibility and stability to a fledgling team. Being the team leader would appeal to Wheldon’s ego. I think it would be a very good fit for him.
Of course, a silly season discussion is not complete without speculating on Wheldon’s soon-to-be vacant seat at Panther. Graham Rahal has been linked to that seat, but probably only if his father fails to put together a program for him at Rahal-Letterman. My ideal situation would be to have Rahal and Ed Carpenter as teammates at Panther.
I’ve never been one to clamor for a mostly American series. But it did always disturb me to have Vitor Meira, a Brazilian; and Dan Wheldon, a Brit - as spokesmen for the National Guard during their time at Panther. I was also a little uncomfortable with Raphael Matos, another Brazilian, as spokesperson for the US Air Force and the Marines last season. Call me old fashioned, but I think that the American Armed Forces should be promoted by Americans. I found it a little ironic at Watkins Glen on the Fourth of July, when Brit Dan Wheldon was doing his best to sound patriotic for the troops on Independence Day. Does he not know whom we had gained our independence from?
Ed Carpenter and/or Graham Rahal would not only give Panther an appropriate mouthpiece for the National Guard, they would give them a good one-two punch for ovals and road courses. Carpenter excels on ovals while Rahal’s strengths lie with the non-ovals; although he is better on ovals than Carpenter is on road courses.
The 2011 silly season is about to come out of its doldrums, with Wheldon being the most intriguing factor. It’s a shame to see how far a former champion and Indianapolis 500 winner has fallen in just five years. The big three (yes, I’ll count Andretti Autosport in there) are no longer within Wheldon’s grasp. He’s now going to have to settle for one of the better second-tier teams. I still think he can drive with the best of them, but he hasn’t shown that he’s the easiest person to work with. He’d better get an attitude adjustment quickly, or else he’ll find himself hawking NOS Energy Drink to the highest bidder of the lowest tiered teams on a part-time basis. I find that kind of sad.