Saturday, September 6, 2008
Meira hoping to turn Chicagoland finale into open tryout
By John Schwarb
Special to ESPN.com
JOLIET, Ill. -- There's plenty at stake at the top of the standings for Sunday's IndyCar Series finale at Chicagoland Speedway on Sunday (3:30 p.m. ET, ABC), with Scott Dixon and Helio Castroneves in contention for a championship.
But the driver of the Panther Racing No. 4 won't approach the 1.5-mile oval with any less purpose than the title combatants. For Vitor Meira, this is partly a farewell, partly a 300-mile job interview after a flurry of silly-season developments that left him out of a seat for 2009.
"This race becomes much different than a lot of races," Meira said. "Every race for me is significant because what matters most is when we are in the car, how much you want it. I would like to reward everybody that's been on the journey."
His three-year journey with Panther appears to be over, as Dan Wheldon was announced this week as having signed a two-year contract to drive the No. 4. Wheldon became available when his No. 10 Target Chip Ganassi Racing seat was given to Dario Franchitti, who is returning to open-wheel racing after a brief dalliance with NASCAR.
"It was very tough; Vitor was a part of the family," Panther co-owner John Barnes said. "He's been a dear friend of ours for three years. It wasn't an easy decision, but you can't pass up someone like Dan either. He's a champion, he's an Indy 500 winner, he raced for Panther [twice in 2002 as a rookie], he understands what makes us, and what we do and why we do it.
"By any means it wasn't an easy decision to do, yet it was a decision we had to make."
Barnes left the door open to putting together a second team for next season if sponsorship materializes, but right now Meira is focused on going elsewhere.
The 31-year-old Brazilian is still looking for his first win in the series, his record drought standing at 92 races, and this season hasn't been his best. With one race remaining this season, he is 12th in points with only two top-5 finishes. His runner-up finish at Indianapolis was memorable, with a frontstretch thread-the-needle pass between two cars that thrust him into a stint on the lead, but there have been more disappointing days, including six DNF's.
Through this year and his previous five, he has still remained a fan favorite, and his 48 races at Panther are the most in the team's 11-year history, which includes back-to-back titles with Sam Hornish Jr. in 2001-02.
"Nobody stays three years together without respect," Meira said. "It just came to this point. The change was done, one way or another, and now we've got to go our separate ways.
"I appreciate all the support, hopefully I'll be with different colors next year, it doesn't mean I'm going to stop trying hard."
Those colors could be weeks or months in materializing, with any number of teams rumored as possibilities. One seemingly natural fit would be Rahal Letterman Racing, with whom Meira drove in 2004-05 and also finished second at Indianapolis in 2005 -- behind Wheldon.
"That's one of the calls I placed. It's up to them," Meira said. "Right now, I'm just receiving my cards. How it's going to be dealt, which one's going to be the last one, I don't know."
John Schwarb is a motorsports contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Nobody stays three years together without respect. It just came to this point. The change was done, one way or another, and now we've got to go our separate ways.
-- Vitor Meira