The Kansas City Star has what would normally be considered a “puff piece” on Dan Wheldon, who won the IndyCar series event at Kansas Speedway in ‘07 and ’08. And while “puff pieces” are normally designed for people who don’t follow racing, this one might be telling something to those of us who actually know a bit about Dan’s career.
First though, note this excerpt in Robin Miller’s mailbag last week.
Q: Who will be the first driver in the IZOD IndyCar Series to be released from their current team and be replaced?Of course this is taken with a grain of salt because Robin says “Graham” about every third word out of his mouth. But there is truth in the fact that Wheldon has been a highly paid driver and Panther took him on with the expectation he would be able to do win more races than the winless Vitor Meira. But after 21 races the Panther/Wheldon relationship has resulted in zero wins and, oh, notice how Dario Franchitti has taken Dan’s old ride to the ’09 series championship.
Chris Fiegler, Latham,NY
RM: I'd bet on Graham Rahal for Dan Wheldon if the contracts weren't so binding.
Which brings us to the curiously-titled article There’s an “I” in Wheldon’s Panther Racing Team, which features quotes by Wheldon about liking the responsibility of driving for a one-car team. Pretty much the same stuff he’s been saying since he signed with Panther, which means that’s not the interesting part. Not that would be the other quotes about Dan, which are by ...Scott Goodyear? Yes, Scott Goodyear, who is most definitely not Panther co-owner John Barnes or anyone else affiliated with the team.
It’s not so much that Goodyear had anything interesting to say, but rather that he – a former Panther driver himself – would be the only other person sourced for this kind of story. Press releases aside, I don’t remember the last time the usually talkative Barnes had anything to publicly say about his driver. He’s always talking about the National Guard sponsorship or the league officials or the 2012 chassis, but his current driver? Insert the sound of crickets chirping.
Maybe I’m wrong and maybe there’s no “there” there in all of this, but it sure seems like this summer is going to be awfully frosty in the Panther Racing garage between Wheldon and everyone else. Maybe this could all change if some sort of miracle happens and Wheldon can give Panther their first win since 2005, like say at Kansas this week, or even at Indy where Wheldon has also won and Panther has finished 2nd the last two years.
But more than likely the winless streak continues, which would almost certainly leave Dan pounding the pavement for a new ride next year. Who would be willing to pay him is anyone’s guess, it does bear noting that his reputation as an “oval specialist” seems a bit overblown. Sure, Dan hasn’t been on a podium for a course with right turns in quite a while, but in 4 non-ovals this year he’s finished between 5th and 11th in three of them - the lone exception being when his Dallara went all “Christine” in St Pete. Wheldon isn’t a threat to win on a road or street course, but if he’s finishing in the top half nearly every week then he’s certainly showing he still belongs in the series.
But it’s the former part of that description – the “isn’t a threat to win” clause – that seems to carry a lot of weight against potential employment for Wheldon. As Robin noted this week "I think you should make as many races this season as possible because Wheldon would appear to be an endangered species." (And yes, I just quoted Robin Miller twice in a single post. Cats and dogs living together.)
I sure hope he's not an "endangered species" because as a fan I like Dan even with the strangely unsettling teeth, because he’s got healthy doses of personality and talent. And I’ve watched the IRL long enough to remember he’s got gargantuan boulders in the nether reaches of his firesuit. And quite frankly, I’m not ready to see him leave the IRL for ...bobsledding?
Photo: TrackSide Online