Has Dan Wheldon Peaked?
One year ago this week, Dan Wheldon announced that an agreement had been reached for him to re-sign at Target Chip Ganassi Racing. He announced this on the afternoon of the night race at Nashville Superspeedway, supposedly putting an end to one of the biggest rumors of the “silly” season. My, how things changed over the next few weeks.
By the time the series got to Kentucky just three weeks later, it was almost a done deal that Wheldon was out and Tony Kanaan would take the place of his former teammate. Of course, Kanaan opted to stay at Andretti-Green Racing, but Wheldon’s future at Ganassi seemed tenuous at best. What happened next is anyone’s guess. Some say that Wheldon got his feelings hurt and looked around for other opportunities. Others contend that Ganassi had already decided that Wheldon was out, before he pursued Kanaan.
Whatever the case, it was soon announced that Wheldon would be leaving the Target team and Dario Franchitti would be rejoining the series, after a one year attempt at NASCAR, to drive the seemingly always troubled #10 car. I say troubled because in the time that Scott Dixon has been in the #9 Target car; there have been many occupants of the #10 car including Tomas Scheckter, Tony Renna, Darren Manning, Jacques Lazier, Wheldon and Franchitti. Dixon has produced two championships and nearly a third in the #9 car and is the current points leader. The #10 has produced nothing but an ongoing soap opera.
Not long after it was announced that Franchitti would replace Wheldon at Ganassi, the next domino fell when Panther Racing announced they were releasing fan favorite Vito Meira, in favor of Wheldon. Shortly thereafter, the final piece fell when AJ Foyt Racing decided that Vitor Meira was an upgrade over Darren Manning, their driver for the previous two years. Manning appeared to be the one left standing with no chair.
The first move appears to have been a good one for both parties. No one would argue that Franchitti to Ganassi has been a positive move for both. The results from all of the other switches aren’t as apparent, just past the halfway point of the season. Meira is sidelined for most of the season and Manning has been out of the series since the first two races of the season.
And then there is Wheldon, who seemed almost effervescent at the announcement that he would be joining Panther Racing. He continually referred to this as a homecoming. To me, that was stretching it a bit, since Wheldon drove only two races for Panther in 2002 as a rookie teammate to Sam Hornish.
In driving those last two races of the season – at Chicago and Texas, Wheldon had respectable finishes of tenth and fifteenth respectively. This was a Panther Racing team that was at the top of their game. They were the defending champions from the 2001 season and they repeated in 2002, when Hornish won his second consecutive championship. Wheldon was along for the ride.
The following year saw many changes in the Indy Racing League. Andretti-Green and Target Chip Ganassi migrated over from CART in 2003 to join Marlboro Team Penske, who had made the full-time move in 2002. The level of competition was raised considerably. Panther Racing did not adjust accordingly and finished fifth in the championship. Dan Wheldon also joined AGR as the eventual replacement for the retiring Michael Andretti, that year.
Wheldon earned his first career victory in 2004 at Motegi, giving Honda its first victory at the track they own. He followed that up with another win at Richmond, on his way to a second place finish in the championship. The following year saw Wheldon win the 2005 Indianapolis 500, as well as the championship.
During his three years at AGR, Wheldon appeared in victory lane anytime an AGR driver won and proceeded to kiss his teammates in celebration. The kissing grew old very quickly and made me long for the days just a few years earlier, when AJ Foyt and Arie Luyendyk were brawling in the bushes beside victory lane. But the team of four AGR drivers seemed to have an undeniable team chemistry, the likes of which I think I’ve never seen in racing.
Inexplicably, Wheldon left AGR in 2006 to sign with a struggling Ganassi team. They would finally be rid of the underpowered Toyota engine and would be on the same level with everyone, as all teams would have Honda engines. Wheldon also admitted the fact that his ego was intrigued with the idea of winning back-to-back season championships and Indy 500 victories, with two different teams.
After the first race it looked as if it might happen, as Wheldon won a close late race battle with Helio Castroneves at the first race at Homestead. Wheldon also led late at Indy, before finishing fourth behind the thrilling Hornish-Marco duel. Wheldon finished second in points that season, but displayed an unappealing surly side whenever he felt his crew had not performed up to his high standards. The following two seasons saw lofty expectations fall short as he and the team plodded along to consecutive, underwhelming fourth place finishes.
Wheldon gleefully announced his return to Panther Racing near the end of the 2008 season. He continually boasted that he was headed to a single-car team, as if this was a good thing. To me — a former IndyCar champion and Indianapolis 500 winner heading to a single-car team, might as well announce the beginning of the end of his career. If being a single-car team were a good thing, then Penske, Ganassi and AGR would trim down to single-car status.
This is nothing more than sugar-coating the fact that there was no other option. What speaks volumes is the fact that Wheldon claims to have sought out a single-car team, so that all the attention can be on him. What that tells me is that Wheldon is the antithesis of a team player. He has earned the moniker of “Difficult Dan” throughout the paddock. He is hard on his crewmembers and is not a good teammate. To say that he wants to be on a single-car team is fine, if he intends for Panther to be his last team. Unfortunately, if he ever wants to be considered for a ride with a top multi-car team, he has advertised what a bad teammate he will be.
Please understand that I like and admire Panther Racing, but their day has come and gone. They ruled the IRL when they competed against the likes of Treadway Racing, Cahill Racing, Jonathan Byrd and Ron Hemelgarn. Racing politics aside, when the well-funded teams of Penske, Ganassi, AGR and Rahal-Letterman came to the IRL; Panther was reduced to a second-tier team, which is where they are likely to stay. Yes — they can possibly win a race every season, but it is unrealistic to think they will compete for the championship ever again. It’s fun to think about, but it’s not happening.
Wheldon has probably taken Panther Racing as far as they are likely to go. To be sitting in sixth place in the standings and ahead of three of the four AGR cars, is a major accomplishment. During Vitor Meira’s last two years at Panther, he finished twelfth and thirteenth respectively.
I think Dan Wheldon is a phenomenal driver and a tremendous spokesperson for the series. On the surface, he is upbeat, polished and well spoken. Unfortunately, his inability to get along with his team behind the scenes, will ultimately lead to the undoing of his career. I’m afraid that he will quickly grow tired of his role as a big fish in a little pond. Most champions aren’t well suited for that role, very long.
But where will he go from there? Unless Danica Patrick moves to a third car at Ganassi and AGR chooses to replace her, I don’t know of any available seats that Wheldon would deem as worthy. Even then the question would be…would Michael Andretti welcome him back? If not, we may be seeing the beginning of the end of Dan Wheldon’s career.