tampabay.com

Wheldon serious about NASCAR

The open-wheel ace and St. Petersburg resident could test as soon as next week.

By BRANT JAMES
Published January 23, 2007


CONCORD, N.C. - About 30 feet from the scrum practically pressing Juan Pablo Montoya through the window of his race car, behind the bank of cameras set up in the great hall of Chip Ganassi Racing's massive shop, another open-wheel champion and Indianapolis 500 winner went unnoticed Monday as he took his next step toward a NASCAR career.

Dan Wheldon was finalizing flight arrangements, darting out after stopping briefly to be fitted for a customized carbon fiber seat in a Ganassi Busch Series car.

The 2005 Indy Racing League champion, an Englishman who lives in St. Petersburg, would need it for his first test in a stock car, perhaps as early as next week in Las Vegas. If all goes well, he said, he might eventually follow Montoya, a former CART champion and Formula One driver, to NASCAR's highest level.

"I look to have a good IndyCar season," said Wheldon, who tied Sam Hornish in the final points standings in 2006, but lost the title by virtue of fewer wins. "But I definitely want to start looking very seriously at the NASCAR stuff."

Wheldon was unable to conduct his first scheduled Busch test last week on the road course at Virginia International Raceway because of rain. He insists he needs to feel he can be as good in stock cars as in Ganassi's open-wheel machines to make a full-time switch. That would be difficult. The 28-year-old has 11 wins and 50 top-10s in 63 IRL starts.

"It depends on schedule, it depends on how the program is going and it depends on what Chip has going on as well," Wheldon said. "(Busch cars) are not cheap to run and Chip's not in it this year to mess around. Chip's serious about winning. He's had a lean couple of years in this series in Busch and Cup, and he wants to put it right."

Since signing him before the 2006 IRL season, Ganassi has supported Wheldon's desire to test stock cars.

"You'll see him give it a try this season," he said.

The owner fields teams in NASCAR, the IRL and Grand Am and combines his drivers into teams for the 24 Hours of Daytona sports car race.

Hornish will run a partial Busch schedule this season for Penske Racing, the only other team to field NASCAR and IRL teams.

"You've got to make sure you stay on Chip's good side. He can do a lot for you," Wheldon said. "As long as you're winning him races, he doesn't care what you drive. I think he'll give you every opportunity to drive something different if you're winning races in your primary discipline, and if not he won't but you don't deserve to anyway and I wouldn't expect to."