By Brant James
April 02, 2008

Dan Wheldon's epiphany might have occurred while a dentist ground away the surface of those unruly English teeth.

Or it might have happened when he finally surrendered the international rock-star playboy lifestyle he had so enjoyed, sliding a wedding ring onto the finger of his longtime personal assistant. It could have come with the realization that his NASCAR dalliance was simply not going anywhere -- at least not anytime soon -- after his boss, Chip Ganassi, hired former teammate Dario Franchitti to drive one of his Sprint Cup cars.

Whatever singular or combination of reasons, here was Wheldon, full of piss and vinegar again, stomping through the paddock at Homestead-Miami Speedway in search of friend and former teammate Tony Kanaan to deliver a measure of grief about a topic that had just come up in an interview. Bright red firesuit unzipped and rolled to his waist, Christmassy green driving shoes making quick steps, Wheldon flashed that new monster grin with porcelain veneer as he poked and prodded at the news of the day with his alacrity.

A group of autograph-seekers break his gait. He signs everything in sight without breaking his concentration.

"Yeah, Danica's all upset about that weight rule thing, eh? Everybody's buzzin' about it,'' he said, making the final swoop with a Sharpie.

A Japanese man in a toupee leaps from a shadow with a camera. Wheldon instinctively throws his arm around his shoulder, squeezes in tight and grins until the flash bulb finally winks.

"Thank you,'' Wheldon said, having his hand shaken vigorously.

"Damn, not there ... not there either ... oh well,'' he relents, seeing that Kanaan's scooter is parked outside neither the Honda nor Andretti Green Racing (AGR) hospitality tents. "He can't hide forever.''

And neither, presumably, could the Wheldon that had so crashed over the Indy Racing League like a wave. Unleashed on the United States in 1999 when his family paid to secure their accomplished son a ride with a St. Petersburg-based team in an open wheel developmental circuit, Wheldon performed well enough to land a job with AGR in 2003 and immediately flourished.

He was named IndyCar rookie of the year that season and won three races to finish second in points in 2004. He won a record six times -- including the Indianapolis 500 -- and a championship in 2005 before tying atop the point standings in 2006. (Sam Hornish Jr. was awarded the title with two more wins.) Finishing fourth is a goal for some, but Wheldon's 2007 season was his worst since his rookie season, despite two wins. He never contended for the title.

"I'd always had very good seasons,'' he said. "They might not always have turned out our way, but for the most part, very good ones. I didn't really enjoy last year, the end as much because it wasn't working for us.''

As meticulous and brooding over his work as his personal life -- he hired a professional hanger from a local museum to assure his artwork was laser-aligned -- Wheldon was miserable. "Racing is everything to me,'' he admitted. "When it's not going my way, I guess I don't enjoy life.''

Wheldon's inner nitpicker even prompted him to attack his dental issues when he accompanied his wife, Susie Behm, to her dentist. Several hours later, his teeth were encased in porcelain.

"I'm English. I hadn't been in seven years,'' Wheldon said. "Susie went and dragged me along with her and he was like, 'Dude, you've got a lot of work that needs to be done.' So I said let's do everything and do it in one hit. Five visits, six or seven hours in the chair at a time. Brutal.''

At least he was medicated. Exploring a NASCAR career was like pulling teeth. Wheldon had gazed somewhat fancifully at the nation's most popular and lucrative series since winning the Indianapolis 500, admitting that he was intrigued by the notion of competing on a "larger stage.'' The process moved far enough along that Wheldon was fitted for a stock car seat and had tentative plans to test a Nationwide Series car last spring. He never did, and about a week after Ganassi said that Wheldon would not test a stock car for at least a season, news leaked in September that Franchitti would be the new driver of Ganassi's No. 40 Dodge beginning this year.

Wheldon seemed stung by the move, but Ganassi said his driver needed to focus on regaining form in IRL, where teammate Scott Dixon was competing -- and ultimately finished 13 points short -- for a second title since 2003. Wheldon was quoted in January as saying NASCAR might have been a distraction, but he is loath to discuss it now. And he claims he's not let any told-ya-so thoughts enter his mind as Franchitti has struggled to adjust to stock car racing.

"It's not a cop-out answer, but honestly, I don't even want to think about it,'' Wheldon said. "I don't want to think about NASCAR. When stuff doesn't go right, people always talk, 'Oh, he was distracted by NASCAR and this and that.' It doesn't matter. Hopefully Dario does well, because he's a friend of mine and he's on the same team, but it doesn't matter to me. I have to worry about my own stuff and having a really rocking season.''

Nowadays, Wheldon can even have a little fun with NASCAR. He cryptically gave a "heads-up'' to a high-ranking member of the Ganassi public relations staff about a non-existent press conference he would hold in six weeks, then started a rumor that he was about to sign with Dale Earnhardt Inc.

Ganassi said Wheldon's poor 2007 had less to do specifically with NASCAR and more to do with a man figuring out who he was becoming at age 29.

"I don't know if he was distracted as much as he was just going through a growth spurt,'' Ganassi said, "and he didn't quite know how to handle it. He had a lot of things hitting him at the same time: NASCAR, his personal life and, at the end, he realized this is what he wants to do. He wants to excel at this.''

And he wants to get on with this next phase. Finishing third at Homestead on Saturday was a good start. Winning for the second time in his adopted home of St. Petersburg on Sunday would help immeasurably. But this all seems bigger than that.

"It's a new Dan for '08,'' he grinned. "Things are looking up.''

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