tampabay.com

Wheldon 'exploring' ride outside the IRL

By BRANT JAMES
Published August 23, 2005


Dan Wheldon knows how to impress a new boss, or a current one. With just four races left on his contract with Andretti Green Racing, the 27-year-old St. Petersburg resident enhanced his resume and boosted his already rising stock Sunday by winning his record-tying fifth Indy Racing League event of the season at Fountain, Colo.

"Right now I am a free agent and I am exploring my options," he said by telephone on Friday. "I have been approached by NASCAR, Formula One and IndyCars teams. But right now we want that championship."

Wheldon, the Indianapolis 500 winner and points leader, could not have timed such a breakout season better, and he knows it. His eight career wins have come in his last 27 races and his points lead over Sam Hornish Jr. grew by seven to 97 Sunday.

Several teams, including BAR Honda, have vacancies next season in F1 (Wheldon drives Hondas in the IRL). Ganassi Racing needs a full-time driver to team with 2003 series champion Scott Dixon after firing Darren Manning in late June.

NASCAR also intrigues Wheldon, and he contends the rigors of 19 more races and trading Motegi, Japan, for Martinsville, Va., as race venues would not bother him.

"I would say certainly I'd like to be in the IndyCar series more, but with the ban on open testing it has taken the driver out of the car, and I prefer to be in the car more," he said. "I have no family in the United States with me right now and I am on my own. The schedule would not be a problem for me. My biggest enjoyment is to be in the car."

One Nextel Cup team with an IRL connection - Penske Racing South - needs to fill a spot in a high-profile car for 2006. Penske needs a stop-gap for the retiring Rusty Wallace in the No.2 Dodge until Kurt Busch becomes available, either by gaining his release from owner Jack Roush or fulfilling the final year. Taking one of those jobs would allow Wheldon and Penske to assess their happiness together.

Then there's Dale Earnhardt Inc. Director of motorsports Richie Gilmore would like to replace Michael Waltrip - with whom the team will part after five seasons - with the hope of retaining nine-year sponsor NAPA on the No. 15 Chevrolet. The fun-loving Wheldon, a Brit, would add a transoceanic flair to a Cup program featuring free spirits Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Martin Truex Jr.

Wheldon, of course, is not offering any clues as to who has inquired.

"I will do what's right for me when the time comes," he said.

ALL QUIET: Zephyrhills native David Reutimann said he has not been contacted by any of the Busch and Cup teams hunting for drivers next season, even after winning his first NASCAR race in the truck series Aug. 13 at Nashville.

"You have to do more than win one truck race to get people all too excited," he said.

WEEKEND WARRIORS: Who came out of the weekend looking better than he did on Friday?

Matt Kenseth : The 2003 Nextel Cup champion remains a super long shot - just ask him - to qualify for the Chase for the Championship at 104 points out of the 10th-place cutoff, and with Jeff Gordon between him and Jamie McMurray . But his third-place finish Sunday gave him top fives in two of his last three.

"If everything goes perfect the next three weeks we could make it," Kenseth said, "but it's definitely a real, real long shot."

WEEKEND WORRIERS: Who came out burned and with a hangover?

Elliott Sadler : He qualified eighth at Michigan, but spun through a turn and finished 39th, 26 laps down. A Chase qualifier last year, he has finished 32nd or worse in three of the last five weeks and dropped two spots to 13th in driver points, 66 from the 10th-place cutoff. He was third in points eight races ago.

"I don't know what I'm doing as a driver to mess up so many times," Sadler said. "I just made a driver mistake and I have dug a hole that's maybe too deep for my team to get me out."