tampabay.com

Defense of win ends with bang

By JOANNE KORTH
Published April 3, 2006


ST. PETERSBURG - When the checkered flag waved for someone else, Dan Wheldon was watching from the pits.

And it was.

The pits.

Wheldon had a bad day Sunday. Which, in the racing business, isn't all that unusual unless you've spent the past year being Wheldon, champion of everything.

This morning, he has one less title to defend.

Wheldon's 16th-place finish in the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg wasn't the end of the world, just the end of a tremendous streak of good fortune that comes along rarely in sports. The type that makes you wary of changing your underwear.

Statisticians are still flipping pages in Wheldon's diary, but it appears his last crummy day occurred sometime in 2004. So long ago he'd forgotten how infuriating felt.

"A long, long time," he said. "I don't want to feel it again."

A year ago, Wheldon's victory in his adopted home of St. Petersburg marked the beginning of the beginning. Competing less than 10 minutes from his Snell Isle home, the Englishman led a remarkable four-car sweep for Andretti Green Racing.

He didn't stop there.

Wheldon took the series points lead that day and held it the rest of the season. He won the next two races, including the Indianapolis 500.

He drank milk. He was a guest on Regis. He won two more races. He became the first driver to win the Indy 500 and the IRL championship in the same season. He signed an endorsement deal with Blue Collar Ethic Clothing to provide his personal wardrobe and design a line of logo apparel. He won the title going away.

In a bold move, Wheldon left powerhouse Andretti Green Racing at the end of the season to drive for Chip Ganassi, eager to prove his yearlong success had as much to do with talent as team resources.

Karma followed him.

Everywhere.

In February, Wheldon climbed into a car with new Ganassi teammate Scott Dixon and won the Rolex 24 endurance race at Daytona International Speedway.

In the IRL season opener at Homestead, Wheldon raced wheel to wheel with Helio Castroneves for the final 15 laps, inching ahead for the victory at the finish line.

For 364 glorious days, Wheldon made King Midas look like a fumble fingers. In every photo finish, his nose was longer. Every time he left the house, his hair was perfect.

Until this weekend.

His turn as defending winner started ominously with a 13th-place qualifying effort, well behind pole-sitter Dario Franchitti on the speed chart. It ended dubiously, 56 laps into the 100-lap race, when Wheldon limped onto pit road with his right rear tire dangling from its axle like a loose tooth.

Wheldon's day was done.

So, too, his charmed run.

Oh, the day began promisingly enough with Wheldon moving up two places to 11th in the first five laps. Then, on Lap 7, Wheldon made contact with Marco Andretti. By Lap 15 Wheldon was in the pits to repair damage.

When the leaders pitted under caution on Lap 56, Wheldon climbed to his highest position of the day, beating Sam Hornish to the end of pit road for eighth place.

Then, blammo.

Wheldon and Hornish crashed - under caution.

Hornish had pulled ahead of Wheldon when the cars returned to the course. According to Ganassi, IRL officials radioed to both teams that Wheldon should be ahead. Wheldon thought he saw Hornish wave for him to go by heading into Turn 3.

Next thing Wheldon knew, he was airborne.

Some will say he picked a dangerously narrow part of the course to go around Hornish when he easily could have waited for a straightaway. Others will say Hornish could have given him more room. Both are valid arguments.

"Things just didn't seem to go right for me," Wheldon said. "I tried to get inside of some people and I had a couple of incidents. We just had a bad weekend."

For the first time in a year.

And, in a series where the past two championships were won in dominating fashion, Wheldon finds himself in an equally unfamiliar position. He is behind.

Wheldon dropped to third in the standings, 29 points behind Grand Prix winner and leader Castroneves. Yet, as out of sorts as Wheldon seemed standing on pit road while 750-horsepower engines continued to roar through the downtown streets without him, he did not expect his new situation to be anything permanent.

"We're always strong," he said. "We'll be back."

The option is the pits.