For the second time in as many seasons, Dan Wheldon may be putting his driving talents, glistening teeth and jaunty matching shoes on the open market. Unfortunately for Wheldon, that market is not exactly bustling as teams look to replace sponsors and shed expensive salaries.
Wheldon, seventh place in the IndyCar series points race heading into Kentucky, appears to be well down the road to a divorce from the mercurial John Barnes and Panther Racing. In the off-season, Barnes made heads wag in the paddock when he announced a multi-year agreement with Wheldon to pilot the National Guard car. Wheldon had just been released from a deal with Chip Ganassi Racing that was said to be in the $3 million per season range and was thought to be seeking a similar arrangement at the time, with insiders wondering exactly who Panther was bidding against for Wheldon's services.
“It’s hard to describe the level of excitement and emotions all of us at Panther have knowing that Dan has come back to drive for us,” team Managing Partner and CEO John Barnes said. “I remember watching him drive for the first time in the Indy Lights series years ago, and I knew he was going to be a special talent. Since then he’s become one of the best open-wheel drivers in the world, and for him to make his return to our team at the height of his racing career is a tremendous compliment to our team. I know he’s excited about getting into the No. 4 car for the first time and we’ve got a tremendous future ahead of us.”
That excitement has apparently lasted all of 10 races, as Barnes has soured on the the expensive English free agent and has told him to look elsewhere for a 2010 ride. The relationship peaked with the second place finish at Indy in May.
Speed's Robin Miller reported that financial considerations are involved in the issue in his weekly mailbag Q&A segment.
(Wheldon's) agents were in Toronto and there's been talk of missed payments and some heated conversations so I'd say he's out of that ride regardless of what happens in the next couple months."
Behind the scenes, the Ganassi operation was critical of Wheldon after his departure. The Brit was an enigma in non-oval events and was described as 'a prima donna who is extremely difficult to work with' by the Target crew.
Wheldon is having a remarkably consistent 2008 season with 8 Top-10 finishes through the first 11 races, but has been little threat to pull off a win unlike his predecessor, the perennial second-place Vitor Meira. Wheldon has slipped in the last three events, most notably a 14th-place marker in Toronto and 15th in Edmonton.
Possible destinations could be a problem for Wheldon, as racing program budgets continue to shrink and disappear for the 2010 season. Apparently, Andretti Green Racing is back in the mix with the pending departure of Danica Patrick for parts unknown, but that could be a smoke grenade thrown by Wheldon's camp to generate interest.
That National Guard training could come in handy.