Dan Wheldon knew better than to be surprised. That's not to say he wasn't a bit stung. So he decided to begin watching out for himself, too.
A week after SpeedTV.com reported that Indy Racing League team-owner Chip Ganassi had all but replaced him for 2009 with his friend and former teammate, Tony Kanaan, Wheldon, the '05 Indianapolis 500 champ and a 15-race winner, was still sorting through things on Monday as he prepared to begin a critical three-race stretch to end his sixth full season.
But with Kanaan spurning Ganassi to return to Andretti Green Racing, Wheldon is still in play at his team. And while his feelings may be hurt, Wheldon knows his best future opportunity is back with Ganassi, the team for which he's raced since '06, the one he joined as defending series champion after being wooed from AGR; the one he nearly brought a title to immediately when he finished tied for the final points lead but lost the championship to Sam Hornish Jr. by virtue of his greater amount of victories.
Teammate Scott Dixon, who fell a vapor of ethanol and 13 points short of a second title with Ganassi last season, is running off with the championship this year, and Wheldon is third in points. But therein lies part of the problem, apparently. Dixon's six wins this season is three times Wheldon's total and he's moved past his teammate for second on the IRL's all-time wins list with 16, one led by Hornish Jr. with 19. In a what-have-you-done-for-me-this-second sport, with a boss whose management style falls somewhere between a Steinbrenner and a Vader, Wheldon no longer has impunity in the final year of his contract.
Still, Wheldon, 30, thinks the deal he said was nearly done with more than a month can be revisited now that Ganassi's contingency plan has evaporated. But he knows that Ganassi won't stop looking in all directions for solutions he feels will improve his team -- the prevailing thought is he pursued Kanaan because of his greater résumé as a road/street course racer, an important skill with the IRL contesting almost half its schedule off ovals beginning next year -- so he's listening to the calls that have begun from other team owners.
SI.com caught up with Wheldon recently to assess his thoughts on the future:
SI.com: How have you sorted out last week's published reports about Ganassi's pursuit on Tony Kanaan?
Dan Wheldon: Honestly, it's never a nice thing to hear, but I think, like I told my management, the only way you can make yourself feel better after something like that is do a real good job in the last four races, and that's what I'm focused on.
SI.com: Did you know this was happening?
DW: Yeah, I had a pretty good idea. In this business things don't stay quiet, so yeah, I had a pretty good idea.
SI.com: Even though this is ultimately about business, does it become harder when it involves someone with whom you've been friends?
DW: It has nothing to do with Tony. That's just down to your boss.
SI.com: How do you maintain a good working relationship with Ganassi knowing he tried to replace you?
DW: You stay one step ahead.
DW: Who knows
SI.com: Will you return to Ganassi next season?
DW: I'm not sure, to tell you the truth. I think we're working toward that, but until the deal is done, you never know. The biggest thing for me is just to make sure I do well these last four races.
SI.com: To make yourself attractive not only to Ganassi but other teams?
DW: Yeah, I don't think it will be a problem, me having another ride. It's just making sure you get the situation you want.
SI.com: Do you want to return?
DW: At the end of the day, you've just got to do what's best for your career.
SI.com: Is that Ganassi?
DW: Yeah, I like this team. I like being here. It's obviously a very competitive team right now, so yeah, why wouldn't [I]?
SI.com: What happened? Was there a point where the relationship with Ganassi soured?
DW: I don't know. I think just Chip is Chip.
SI.com: Was it a surprise to you, considering your résumé, that you might have been replaced?
DW: I think the biggest curiosity you've got is when you look at the dynamic of the team. Scott and I have probably one of the best working relationships I've ever had with a driver. I think the environment within the team is very good. Yeah, you would be surprised by that, that's the biggest thing.
SI.com: Have you spoken with Ganassi about a new contract, the situation, moving on?
DW: We'll talk about it and we'll keep it between us. I'm just going to try and finish out the final four races as strong as possible.
SI.com: You're putting a lot of emphasis on these last three points races. Two of them are non-ovals, where you haven't won since the first in IRL history, the '05 Grand Prix of St. Petersburg. Ganassi apparently was interested in Kanaan because of his two wins and nine top fives in 15 non-oval events. What's your expectation?
DW: I like Sonoma [site of Sunday's race] a lot. The road courses have been a little bit of an issue for whatever reason. The team and I [haven't been] able to get the feel from the race car that I need, but I have to say this year it's been considerably better. We've been quick on a lot of occasions, but there were times we didn't capitalize.
We were running third at Edmonton and Marco [Andretti] came out of the pits and stopped in front of [Oriol] Servia and me. And at Watkins Glen, we didn't do such a good job in qualifying. But I think I will be pretty strong at Sonoma. Personally I don't like the track [at Detroit]. I think it's a useless track. It's very hard to overtake and it's bumpy as all get out, so it's kind of processional. They had a configuration before where you could actually overtake. I think that would be much more valuable to the series. But Roger Penske promotes that race and it's a great event. Everything around the race track is fantastic. It's a place a enjoy going to, but its probably my least-favorite track on the calendar. Chicago [an oval], I always go very well at.
The chances of me scoring wins right now are probably higher for me on the ovals than on the road courses, but I think that is going to be addressed pretty quickly. We've definitely showed signs of a lot of speed. I don't see it as a massive issue because in the offseason it will all be addressed.
SI.com: You've been contacted by other organizations?
DW: Yes. It's actually been nice in that situation, that some people have [contacted me].
SI.com: Did you leave Andretti Green Racing [after the '05 season] on good enough terms to return there if a ride somehow came open?
DW: I believe so, yes.
SI.com: Is the interest from other teams "nice" validation when there's bad news internally?
DW: It's not really bad news for me. I know what I'm capable of and I know the business well enough to know this stuff happens. You take it for what its worth, to tell you the truth. That's life and things happen for a reason. You never know. It could be something really good happening just around the corner.