Dan Wheldon understands the focused mania of a final dash for an IZOD IndyCar championship. Five years ago he entered the last race of the season at Chicagoland in third place and 19 points behind points leader Helio Castroneves, while Castroneves' Team Penske teammate, Sam Hornish Jr., was in second place, one point out. Wheldon needed a high finish and the type of racing fortune that had eluded him much of the season to capture what would have been consecutive driver titles. Wheldon won the race, tying Hornish Jr. in the final points standings, but ultimately finished second because Hornish Jr. had four wins, Wheldon two.
So Wheldon, whose career has taken an eventful path since that near repeat as a champion, understands the sanctity of two drivers and their singular goal over a dwindling set of laps. Nothing should interfere with it, he said. So the fact that Wheldon is the only contestant for a $5 million bonus being offered by the series for a non-full-time winner of the season finale at Las Vegas should be comforting to Dario Franchitti and Will Power. Franchitti, a three-time champion and a winner of the last two IndyCar titles, leads Power by 18 points entering Sunday's finale.
Though Wheldon said the drivers most speculated about as fellow rivals for the $5 million prize were competent, he alone understands the moment Franchitti and Power face.
"It goes two ways," Wheldon said. "Obviously, the people [IndyCar CEO] Randy [Bernard] was talking about are accomplished athletes. You've got [NASCAR driver] Kasey Kahne, who is obviously very, very good. You've got [1997-98 CART champion] Alex Zanardi, who is incredibly talented and has continued to race at a very high level, and [rally driver/NASCAR driver/FMX star] Travis [Pastrana], who I think understands the danger, probably better than anybody.
"I think what [IndyCar drivers] like is the familiarity. It's not someone who is going to be unpredictable. It would be my duty and my personal responsibility to make sure it didn't take away from the actual champion of the series, because that is a huge accomplishment. I've been in that situation and I appreciate how hard it is to win a championship and there is nothing you can take away from that person, because in this day and age of motor racing, that is quite a feat."
Wheldon, who won the 2005 series championship with the team now known as Andretti Autosport, raced three seasons for Ganassi Racing, leaving in 2009 for two comparatively unsuccessful seasons at Panther. Replaced by J.R. Hildebrand this season, he turned down lesser full-time offers but won his second Indianapolis 500 in a one-off venture for Bryan Herta. The test pilot of the new car the series will deploy in 2012, Wheldon was deemed eligible for the $5 million bounty Bernard used to stoke interest in the Las Vegas event.
Five-time defending Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson said the process of becoming a six-time champion has become rife with a new, maddening variable: the "majority rules or majority wins" game of track position. A durable Goodyear tire and difficulty passing at many tracks has dramatically pressurized the decision-making process of how many tires to take, particularly for teams that have run up front much of the race or during key late stretches.
"If everyone is taking two [tires], it's real safe to take two," said Johnson, who enters the race at Charlotte this weekend third in points, four behind Carl Edwards after winning at Kansas last week. "If you're the only guy that took two and you're lined up first or second and everybody is on four behind you, you're going to have your hands full and have some issues. When you're leading a race or dominating a race, the field is going to do the opposite. That's their chance to beat you.
"We saw that at Dover at the spring race where there were a couple cars that checked out on the field, and we came in for four. I was one of the three cars that had good pace, and the rest of the field went for two, and we were mired in traffic and couldn't go anywhere because the numbers worked against us. There were more guys on two in front of us and we just lined up too deep in the pack. That's the floating variable that you can't predict. It's easy to make that call when you're running 10th, but when you're in the top three ..."
Wheldon's professional relationship with Danica Patrick has been eventful. The residual buzz from his victory in the 2005 Indianapolis 500 was muted when Patrick -- a national sensation after setting a gender record for finish (fourth) and becoming the first woman to lead laps (19) in the race -- was dispatched on a national media barnstorm concurrent with his. Weeks later Wheldon sported a T-shirt at Texas stating he had "actually won" the race, and in 2007 Patrick grabbed Wheldon on pit road after a race at Milwaukee because she felt he had cut down on her racing line.
Still, Wheldon says of Patrick: "[S]he's a good friend and a nice person and she's done well for herself, and I think people should respect that."
And her IndyCar legacy, which presumably concludes on Sunday, is unimpeachable, he said.
"When the series split [into the Indy Racing League and predecessor CART in 1996], there was a time there where it looked awfully dismal for IndyCar racing. It really did," he said. "I think Danica really kind of helped keep that interest, and not just from the motor racing media. Motor racing media is incredibly important, but to the sponsors it's a lot about the mainstream media. She was able to help with that like nobody else. I think you can say what you want about Danica, but she's very driven. She's made, I think, good decisions for her.
"She thinks the time is right to do NASCAR and she deserves to have that choice and I think people should support that. People say IndyCar would have survived without her, and sure, it would have. But would it have survived to the same level it is right now? I think she is a huge part of that."