NASCAR & Auto Racing

Wheldon thinks small

KANSAS CITY, Kan. —Sometimes Dan Wheldon must feel like he's taking a pea shooter into a fight with bazookas.

Wheldon, a former IndyCar Series champion, is in his second year driving for Panther Racing, a one-car operation amid the multi-car powers of his former team, Target Chip Ganassi as well as Team Penske and Andretti Autosport.

But Wheldon, who won the 2007 and 2008 IndyCar races at Kansas Speedway with Team Target and won the 2005 Indianapolis 500 and series championship for Andretti Green Racing, believes a one-car team can succeed among the giants.

"That's a responsibility I love," Wheldon said. "There are pluses and minuses of being a one-car team. As an individual and a team leader, you maximize all the advantages. I understand my responsibility better, and I'm enjoying it and trying to use it to the best of our ability."

Those advantages include having all the resources and technical attention going into one car, but times have changed since Sam Hornish Jr. won IndyCar championships in 2001-02 with the backing of Penzoil, which pulled out after the 2008 season.

The multi-car teams have double — or triple — the funds for testing and track information than a single car such as Wheldon's, which enters Saturday's Road Runner Turbo Indy 300 at Kansas Speedway in 10th place in the IndyCar standings.

Of the top eight drivers, seven are with either Team Penske, Andretti Motorsport or Team Target.

"The series is just very competitive," said Wheldon a winner of 15 career IndyCar races, which is third all-time. "You forget about the past, and you look forward, and we've got a lot to look forward to. We've learned a lot this year."

In four races this season, all on road/street courses, Wheldon's best finish was a fifth at Sao Paulo in the season opener. He was 20th at St. Petersburg; 11th at Birmingham, Ala., and ninth at Long Beach.

Last year, Wheldon finished 10th in the points race, his worst since 2003 when he was 11th, but at least was voted Rookie of the Year.

"Dan Wheldon didn't forget how to drive a race car," said ABC/ESPN analyst Scott Goodyear, who drove for Panther Racing during 1998-2000, winning three races. "He's gone to a team that does not have all the resources that the big two or three teams do. You need resources, you need testing, you need wind-tunnel availability... he's on a team that has got a middle-of-the-road budget, and we're used to seeing him on a team that has one of the top two or three budgets.

"I still rate Dan very, very high, and was very pleased and surprised to see how competitive he was out of the box at the beginning of this year on road courses. You can't count St. Pete because he had a suspension failure which took him out of the race. He's had some decent finishes which you can applaud him for, because he'll be more competitive on an oval than a road course."

Wheldon, a 31-year-old Englishman, briefly tested at Kansas Speedway before rain interrupted his session last week, and is anxious to begin the transition to oval races, starting with Kansas and followed by the Indianapolis 500, where he finished a season-best second last year.

"This is a very important race to everybody because of the fact we've got Indianapolis coming up, and obviously we're going to use this as preparation for Indianapolis," said Wheldon.

Wheldon hopes he can apply what he learned about Kansas Speedway in previous years and apply it to his Panther Racing car.

"You try to hold onto something, but things change, and things develop, and you try and use all the knowledge you have to the best of your ability," said Wheldon, who was 10th at Kansas last year. "But I think we're positioned very well, and we're expecting to have a good result here."

Goodyear believes if anyone can succeed in a one-car operation, it's Wheldon.

"You can tell he's been working hard all winter," Goodyear said. "I think he's more fit than he's ever been. I think he's more dedicated than he's ever been. He's more focused. He just needs to have the race car underneath him to get going."