Wheldon has become an Indy Great
Dan Wheldon was not among the drivers honored earlier this month as one of the Greatest 33 in Indianapolis 500 history. Maybe it's time to reconsider.
|Wheldon drank the Indy milk in 2005 as well|
Winning Sunday's race made Wheldon one of only 18 drivers with multiple Indy-car wins at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. In addition to the others all making the list, Wheldon's record here stands as one of the modern era's best.
In nine races, Wheldon has finished in the top four six times with two wins, two seconds, a third and a fourth.
Dario Franchitti and Scott Dixon, who made the Greatest 33 list, have only four top-four finishes between them. Wheldon also has led more laps at IMS than Helio Castroneves, a three-time winner who also made the list.
Wheldon's team owner, former 500 driver Bryan Herta, said Wheldon has gone through a transformation that has made him one of the best the event has known.
"I don't know how to put in words what he did (Sunday)," Herta said. "We had a good car, and the (crew) did a good job in the pits, but what Dan did in the last 20 laps was sensational. He passed cars, ran his fastest laps and as we watched the (computers), he was literally adjusting in every corner those last 20 laps.
"He threw everything he had at it, and I've never seen a driver do that around here."
Wheldon passed rookie JR Hildebrand off the final corner after the Panther Racing driver hit the fourth turn wall.
Watching the video replay Monday morning, Wheldon said he was "very surprised" that Hildebrand went so high to overtake the lapped car of rookie Charlie Kimball.
Hildebrand said he was surprised, too. At the time he didn't realize that Kimball was out of fuel.
"I was going way faster than he was and all of a sudden I was on top of him," Hildebrand said. "But if I had slowed to his speed, I'm not sure I wouldn't have been passed (by Wheldon) anyway."
Hildebrand said he was "full throttle after I hit the wall." IMS officials measured the location of the pass: 900 feet from the finish.
The difference between the two was evident at Monday night's awards ceremony at the JW Marriott. Wheldon and Bryan Herta Autosport received a check for $2,567,255
Hildebrand and Panther received $1,064,895, the most presented to a first-year driver. Hildebrand also was named Chase Rookie of the Year, which carried a $25,000 bonus.
If Wheldon's place in 500 history wasn't already secured, it is now.
"I'm obviously pleased to be a winner, period," he said. "But two? I'm very proud of that."
Wheldon said this win feels different than the one he got in 2005.
"I was a kid back then," he said. "Totally a different stage in my life."
He now has a wife and two sons.
Wheldon has gone through a difficult three years that began with being offended that his team owner, Chip Ganassi, tried to land Tony Kanaan to replace him.
Wheldon left Ganassi Racing after the 2008 season to join Panther Racing, and they had their trying moments. Last summer, Wheldon filed a lawsuit to recoup back pay, although they resolved the issue.
The finish to Sunday's race was Wheldon's redemption on several levels. Winning showed the team owners who didn't pursue him in the offseason that he's among the best on oval tracks, particularly Indy.
With Herta's steadying influence, Wheldon said he has regained the confidence in himself.
"The old Dan was back," he said. "Happy, bubbly."
Wheldon had every right to tout the fact he passed the car of a former team, but he hasn't mentioned it.
Herta said Wheldon has grown up considerably since his early days in the series.
"He was always a great driver," Herta said. "He's become a great man." Indy Star