Wheldon Wants A Shot At Shooting In Texas

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Thursday, June 4 2009
Dan Wheldon fastest in Texas. (Dan Helrigel photo courtesy of the IndyCar Series)

Dan Wheldon fastest in Texas. (Dan Helrigel photo courtesy of the IndyCar Series)

By John Sturbin | Senior Writer

Fort Worth, Texas _ Dan Wheldon is anxious to return Panther Racing to its glory days at Texas Motor Speedway.

Indianapolis-based Panther holds the record for most IndyCar wins at TMS with five, including two each by Scott Goodyear and Sam Hornish Jr. The team’s most recent victory was logged by Tomas Scheckter in 2005. Wheldon, meanwhile, never has finished higher than third on TMS’ high-banked, 1.5-mile quadoval, a stat the Englishman is determined to upgrade during the Bombardier Learjet 550k Saturday night.

Wheldon, the 2005 IndyCar Series champion, topped the speed chart after the first practice Thursday night with a hot lap in 24.2744 seconds/215.783 mph. Danica Patrick was second-quick at 24.3759 seconds/214.884 mph.

“Panther has won a lot of races around here and certainly with the times changing in IndyCar, it’s getting harder and harder to win races,” said Wheldon, driver of the No. 4 National Guard Panther Racing Dallara/Honda. “We rolled off the truck pretty strong. I think when you look at that time it was in a very big draft, but the car seems to be very quick on its own.

“This is probably, in terms of speed, the most competitive we’ve been and that’s certainly a good sign. It’s still the first practice session so it’s really not too much there to read into. Certainly, we’ve rolled up with a car that’s capable of being very quick. We’ve got to continue to work on it to make it good in traffic.”

Thursday night’s 90-minute session was the first chance IndyCar teams got to setup for Friday evening’s qualifying session and Saturday night’s 228-lapper. One more hour of practice is scheduled for 2 p.m., CDT, today.

“I’ve always gone very well here in terms of speed,” Wheldon said, “but we finished third and fourth a lot. To get a victory at Panther at this point in the season would be a great stat for myself and the National Guard Panther car. We’ve got to continue to improve the car and make sure that it is good in traffic. The intention is to run up-front the whole evening. But you have to bear in mind there is the potential to be in traffic with strategy, and stuff like that.”

Wheldon is sixth in series points after a 10th-place finish last Sunday at The Milwaukee Mile. But the team scored an impressive second-place finish to Helio Castroneves of Team Penske during the 93rd Indianapolis 500 on May 24. Wheldon has four top-10 finishes and two top-fives in five starts this season – his first with the team led by John Barnes.

“For the position that we’re in, it’d be great to qualify on the pole and just lead as many laps as we possibly can,” said Wheldon, who has paced a total of 246 laps in nine starts at TMS. “At this point in the championship, it’s critical for us to win and as a team, I think we’re going to continue to get better and better. If you were to ask me if we were at our best right now, I’d have to say no, we’re still learning a lot together and there’s still an incredible amount of effort to develop the cars and be a consistent front-runner.

“I would say if we could lead, we could be incredibly aggressive out front and make it very difficult for people to pass. In that way, we’re giving ourselves the best possible shot at winning and I think that’s what we need to do. I think we’re an outside shot for the championship, so for us, we can be more aggressive and put it on the line. That certainly would be my intention. And that certainly would be my job.”

Patrick said her weekend has started off exactly as planned by her Andretti Green Racing team.

The bottom line is that Eddie (Jones) and Marco (Andretti) were able to set up a very good car last year,” said Patrick, driver of the No. 7 Boost Mobile/Motorola Dallara/Honda. “We ran their 2008 race setup and didn’t change a thing for tonight’s session. I’m really excited for the rest of the weekend and think we’ll be strong Saturday.” 

Team Penske’s Ryan Briscoe was third-fastest at 214.652 mph, followed by Dario Franchitti of Target Chip Ganassi Racing at 214.433 mph. Points-leader Scott Dixon, also of Ganassi Racing, was fifth at 214.399 mph. 

Castroneves was sixth overall at 214.311 mph, followed by Graham Rahal of Newman/Haas/Lanigan Racing at 214.224 mph. 

“It was great that we ran at night, because it gives us a chance to see what Saturday will be like,” said Castroneves, driver of the No. 3 Dallara/Honda. “(Friday) we’ll run during the day so we’ll have to be careful not to get confused.” 

Rahal, who finished a season-high fourth at The Milwaukee Mile, said his car was already racy. “Right away we showed we had speed,” said Rahal, driver of the No. 02 McDonald’s Racing Dallara/Honda. “Of course, there is still some speed to be found, but overall the car feels good, it feels competitive. It will be interesting to see who is where in qualifying because everybody is so close in race trim that it’s going to be tough to really know who is quick or not.” 

Tony Kanaan of AGR was eighth at 213.767 mph, followed by Milka Duno of Dreyer & Reinbold Racing at 213.539 mph and Marco Andretti of AGR at 213.387 mph. 

Wheldon said the pre- and post-race traditions at TMS make it an event every open-wheel driver wants to win.

“You always see the picture in the newspaper when you’re getting on the plane on Sunday morning with the guy shooting the two guns,” said Wheldon, referring to the Victory Lane celebration. “I’ve yet to do that and I’d like to do that. To shoot them for fun would be cool.”

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Thursday, June 4 2009
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