Simmons settling in on one of IRL's elite teams

INDIANAPOLIS -- It was the phone call Jeff Simmons had dreamed of receiving, yet there was no celebratory fist pump, no excited shout after hanging up.

He longed for a full-time IndyCar Series ride. But he couldn't have imagined getting one this way.

Simmons was selected in early April to take over the No. 17 Rahal Letterman Racing Panoz-Honda previously driven by Paul Dana, who died March 26 during morning practice prior to the Indy Racing League's season opener at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

"I wasn't really sure how I was supposed to feel," Simmons said. "I was really excited about the opportunity to run with a first-class team, but certainly tempered by thoughts of how it came about."

Those thoughts remain alive with Simmons at Indianapolis, especially on a day like Thursday when his Team Ethanol was in the spotlight with a visit from Secretary of Energy Samuel Bodman. Dana was a passionate backer of the alternate fuel, which will help power all the race cars at Indianapolis this year.

Simmons is trying to honor Dana's memory by excelling on the track, but success has proved elusive so far. Last month in Motegi, Japan, in his first race with the team, Simmons finished 18th after a crash. He also brushed the wall in a prerace practice session.

Wednesday at Indianapolis he became the first driver of the month to find trouble on the speedway, sustaining slight front-end damage after he spun from the exit of Turn 1 and brushed the inside retaining wall.

"It hasn't been a good start yet, for various reasons," Simmons said. "But it's a unique situation. Generally rookies have the benefit of getting some of the preseason testing and all of that in.

"We're trying to do everything kind of in the heat of competition."

Simmons, 29, is considered a rookie for this IndyCar season, but he's not a rookie at Indianapolis. He participated in the 2004 race as a bump-day qualifier with Pioneer Mo Nunn Racing and finished a respectable 16th, improving 13 spots after qualifying 29th. He finished one lap behind the leaders in the 180-lap rain-shortened race and was the second-highest finisher of eight rookies.

He also participated in the Indy Pro Series Freedom 100 at Indianapolis in 2004, finishing second. Simmons finished second in series points on the circuit in 2003 and 2005, and he began the 2006 season with a win at Homestead, a record seventh in Indy Pro racing.

The Homestead race was staged just hours after Dana's accident. Simmons won, then learned of Dana's death in the press room.

"I was happy, excited ... and then I heard that news," said Simmons, who was an acquaintance of Dana's from previous years of competition.

Rahal Letterman Racing grounded the cars of Buddy Rice and Danica Patrick for the Homestead race before returning them to the next race on the schedule in St. Petersburg, but Bobby Rahal said there was never a thought of not putting the No. 17 car back on the track this season. In Simmons, he found an able replacement.

"Jeff is a driver that I think has a great deal of potential and a very bright future," Rahal said.

While getting settled with Rahal Letterman -- a process somewhat simplified with a media sensation like Patrick diverting attention -- Simmons also has made peace with how he landed the job. He admitted to waking up in the middle of the night for weeks after the call, but those moments subsided after he wrote out his thoughts. He also exchanged letters with Dana's widow, Tonya.

"I wrote how sorry I was, all of that," Simmons said. "She wrote back, saying she appreciated I wrote her, that sort of thing. It eased my mind."

He also has found comfort among other drivers. New teammates Rice and Patrick embraced him quickly, and Team Penske driver Helio Castroneves offered some helpful words. Castroneves was in the same situation in 2000, inheriting the car of Greg Moore after he died in an October 1999 crash in a CART race in Fontana, Calif.

"It's a very difficult situation. You don't replace someone," Castroneves said. "But it's an opportunity, and that's what I told him. You just have to go out there, do your job and not focus on the circumstances you're in."

Of course, Castroneves took the opportunity and, a year later, notched the first of back-to-back Indianapolis 500 titles. Simmons could do worse than follow in those footsteps.

John Schwarb is a freelance journalist covering motorsports and a contributor to ESPN.com