Second place speaks volumes for Wheldon

May, 24, 2009
05/24/09
7:06
PM ET
INDIANAPOLIS -- Dan Wheldon's No. 4 National Guard Panther Racing Dallara/Honda was refinished in camouflage markings for the 93rd Indianapolis 500.

Maybe the elaborate paint scheme worked, because Wheldon stealthily turned an 18th-place start into a second-place finish Sunday at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

The result wasn't as sweet as 2005, when Wheldon, then driving for Andretti Green Racing, won at what is well known as his favorite race. But after two weeks at Indianapolis during which he and the Panther team struggled for speed, it was a surprisingly competitive run.

He finished 1.9819 seconds behind winner Helio Castroneves.

"I'm incredibly excited," Wheldon said. "It's one of those days where we just didn't have quite enough for Helio, but I think everyone on the team should be incredibly proud. There's not many races that I've done in my career where I can honestly say that the team executed 100 percent. And I have to say they did today."

Wheldon and Panther made big gains on Carb Day, when they were fourth-fastest after rarely cracking the top 10 all month. So they went into the race confident they had a quicker car than their sixth-row starting position would indicate.

The Panther crew gained Wheldon track position in every pit stop and the Englishman responded with some effective restarts. He said he took inspiration from the many soldiers he has met during promotional work for the National Guard.

"We've had a difficult month, but the soldiers I've met here and even the stories I've heard from the soldiers overseas have that never-say-die attitude," Wheldon said. "And that was fully in force this month with this race team. The National Guard Panther Racing pit crew were phenomenal. They made my job incredibly easy all day because they made me spot after spot in the pits.

"I think we got the best out of everything, so they should be very proud."

Wheldon knew that in some ways the result flattered to deceive; poor pit work by his former team, Target Chip Ganassi Racing, relegated Scott Dixon and Dario Franchitti to finishing sixth and seventh. And an incompatible set of tires nullified the hopes of Penske's Ryan Briscoe and left him 15th at the flag.

But once Wheldon got near the front, he and the No. 4 car had enough speed to stay there. In fact, they had everyone but Castroneves covered.

"It would be more frustrating if I had something for Helio, but I have to say I don't think we did," Wheldon admitted. "It's not for a lack of effort."

In the hoopla of Castroneves' winning his third Indianapolis 500 and Danica Patrick's finishing third, a quality effort from Wheldon and Panther pretty much got ignored. But they are quietly putting together a solidly competitive season.

Wheldon lies seventh in the IndyCar Series standings, but he is only 16 points out of the lead in what is shaping up to be a classic championship battle. He can expect to perform strongly on upcoming oval tracks, and he is coming off a fifth-place finish at the Long Beach street course.

It will certainly make things more interesting if Wheldon and the Panther team can hang in there with the big three teams over the rest of the summer.

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