Wheldon takes a risk as he returns home to Panther

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John Barnes has an eye for talent. There is no denying that. As for a hand for holding on it ... that was in need of a little work.

In 2001 he put a kid from Defiance, Ohio, in one of his IndyCars and watched Sam Hornish Jr. collect 11 of his team's 15 all-time victories and consecutive championships in 2001-02. Then Hornish Jr. left for a higher-profile job at Team Penske, where he has since fulfilled his dream of winning the Indianapolis 500, and added another title before moving to Penske's NASCAR operation this season.

In 2002, Hornish's penultimate year with Panther, Barnes signed an unheralded 24-year-old from Emberton, England, to a developmental deal, took him to most of the races where he stood by the war wagon and listened on headsets to a team strategizing a championship. Later that season Dan Wheldon made his first two IndyCar starts for Panther.

A year later, with former Champ Car teams like Penske, Andretti Green Racing and Ganassi Racing absorbing more and more victories and sponsorship dollars, Barnes couldn't secure the funding to put Wheldon in a second car to bolster Hornish Jr. So Wheldon signed with Andretti Green Racing, was named rookie of the year in 2003, the 2005 Indy 500 and series championship, then moved to Ganassi, where he burnished his win total to 15 -- third-best in league history behind Hornish Jr.'s 19 and Scott Dixon's 16 -- and lost the 2006 title to Hornish Jr. on tiebreakers.

Hornish Jr. left Panther in 2003 and the team has won one race since, with Tomas Scheckter in 2005.

Barnes doesn't have to think about what could have been anymore. Any future Wheldon wins will be Panther wins. A team in need of a push to the future and a driver hoping to pull back the glory and success of his past reunited on Tuesday when Wheldon left Ganassi Racing after three years to replace Vitor Meira at Panther.

And in Barnes' estimation, "I think we're ready to move."

Barnes and Wheldon remained friends after the driver's departure and the owner was pleasantly surprised in mid-August when Wheldon's business agents asked to speak with him about a ride there. It was days after what Wheldon calls "the Kentucky situation," when it became known that Chip Ganassi had attempted to sign AGR free agent Tony Kanaan to replace Wheldon as an upgrade to its road/street racing program.

Wheldon is fourth in the IndyCar standings with two wins this season, but has been outdone by teammate Scott Dixon, and admittedly struggled for comfort on road and street courses, which will comprise nearly half of the IRL schedule beginning next season.

"Not to say the Kentucky situation really set anything off, obviously it wasn't the best, but when my management spoke to John and then in turn I spoke to John, I was just very excited about having this opportunity," Wheldon said. "I was pretty adamant about how this was where I wanted to be."

Barnes was initially taken aback by the approach, then remembered that unusual business is business as usual in a racing paddock.

"I've been doing this 41 years, so you don't not expect anything," he said. "I didn't expect Sam Hornish to go to NASCAR, so you never can tell."

Wheldon said he "respectfully declined" a "nice offer after Kentucky," from Ganassi which prompted Ganassi to ask his erstwhile NASCAR rookie, Dario Franchitti, to return to the IRL, where he won the 2007 championship and Indy 500. Franchitti's Sprint Cup program had been shelved, ostensibly due to sponsorship woes amid poor performance. He will replace Wheldon in 2009.

"I think it was best I moved on," Wheldon said. "Chip is Chip and you know what you're getting into when you go into an agreement with Chip. For everything that's happened, he's still a good guy. It's just the way he is. I still have obligations to the team and I am going to honor them because I've enjoyed my time there. It's not been as successful as we would have liked, but we won a lot of races."

But can he win with Panther? Penske, AGR and Ganassi have combined to win 59 of 65 races and three championships (and are assured another this season) since 2005. And Panther suffers strategic and intelligence shortfalls by currently fielding just one car -- though Barnes suggested he'd be interested in bringing back Meira if funding could be secured -- against AGR's four, Penske's two and Ganassi's two. Still, non "Big Three" teams have won four times this season, so there is hope that a smaller operation with the right guile and right driver can succeed.

"The enthusiasm, the personnel they have there, and obviously they have the funding, I think, to compete with the big guys," Wheldon said. "They've already got a good race cars. I think instead of the big three they want to make it the big four, and I want to be a part of that."

Wheldon, who used three teammates to great advantage at AGR and called his relationship with Dixon one of the best of his career, seems to relish the thought of being the focal point, perhaps because his and Ganassi's inability to find a non-oval package that he could win with hastened his exit from that team.

The two stayed close through the years, with Barnes often inquiring about Wheldon's father, and Wheldon passing along little encouragements, telling Barnes that his car was the best in traffic at the Indy 500 won this year by Wheldon's teammate, Dixon. The résumé has blossomed, Barnes said, but the driver displays the same traits of the eager youngster. And that's unlikely to change as Wheldon makes another risky career move, arguably riskier than when he left AGR as defending series champion after the 2005 season.

"The Dan Wheldon I know is so professional. I think he gets up every day thinking about how to beat the rest of the guys in the IndyCar series," Barnes said. "I don't think he needs any motivation to do that.

"As a driver, the Dan I put in the car in 2002 hadn't won the Indy 500 or 15 IndyCar races, or the IndyCar championship. He brings with him a tremendous amount of experience, and coupled with the intense desire to win, that's what makes it so exciting for us."