Wheldon at center of IndyCar speculation

By Bruce Martin
PA SportsTicker Contributing Editor

CHICAGO (TICKER) —Now that Dario Franchitti has clinched the 2007 IndyCar title there are two prime seats open in the series as it appears both Franchitti and three-time champion Sam Hornish Jr. are heading to NASCAR Nextel Cup.

And the speculation has centered on the availability of 2005 IndyCar champion Dan Wheldon, who remains under contract at Target/Chip Ganassi Racing but would be a worthy candidate for either ride.

The 2007 season-finale hadn’t even started yet but Wheldon’s name was privately being discussed in the IndyCar garage area at Chicagoland Speedway, according to sources.

“I had a team manager from another team come up and tell me about that,” said Mike Hull, the managing director of Target/Chip Ganassi Racing. “I can honestly say that I don’t know whether Dan and Chip Ganassi have discussed that.”

The team entered Sunday’s Peak Antifreeze Indy 300 presented by Mr. Clean with a legitimate chance for driver Scott Dixon to win the 2007 championship. Dixon had the title in hand as he battled hard with Franchitti in the closing laps of the race, only to run out of fuel two turns away from the checkered flag.

Franchitti went on to win the race and the championship in what is likely his final IndyCar race.

Both Franchitti and Dixon topped off their fuel tanks on lap 148 of the 200-lap race in an effort to stretch their fuel mileage to the distance. This came near the conclusion of a lengthy pit stop to repair the SAFER Barrier after Vitor Meira crashed in the fourth turn wall.

Members of Team Penske complained there was confusion from Race Control regarding the wave-around policy before that restart which created a situation where Dixon and Franchitti would have the rest of the field one-lap down when those drivers had to make their final pit stop.

“When the No. 4 car (Vitor Meira) hit the wall, there was a lot of confusion during the caution period about who would get waved around and whether the pits were open or closed,” said fourth-place finisher Helio Castroneves. “It’s unfortunate that the race officials made the call that left only two cars on the lead lap.

“If it wasn’t for this, I’m confident that either Sam Hornish or I would have come away with the win.

This is where Wheldon figured into the outcome after he made his final pit stop later in the race.

Hull radioed to Wheldon that Dixon was going to run out of fuel so he instructed Wheldon to take the lead and let Dixon conserve fuel by “drafting” behind him. But Wheldon didn’t take the lead, leaving Dixon out front burning up valuable fuel.

“We switched radios on Dan’s car before the race and had issues with it throughout,” Hull said. “Because of that, it took us four laps to position Dan with Scott.”

Despite that, when Danica Patrick spun out entering the pits on lap 193, it appeared both Franchitti and Dixon would have enough to make it to the end because of the five laps of caution where the cars are at reduced speed.

It worked for Franchitti, who made it to the finish, but Dixon was a half-gallon of Ethanol short and finished second, losing the race and the championship by 13 points.

Wheldon was scrutinized for not aiding his teammate in a championship battle, which may be part of the reason why there are rumors he may want an early release from the team.

Earlier this season at Richmond International Raceway in June, Wheldon spoke of his desire to try NASCAR but was rebuked by Ganassi, who told the driver from England he was under contract to remain in the IndyCar.

So when Ganassi was able to get Canadian Club as a sponsor to replace Coor’s Light in the No. 40 Dodge driven by David Stremme, he was also able to get Franchitti as the driver in NASCAR.

That had to irk Wheldon to a degree and now he may be interested in returning to Andretti Green Racing to take over Franchitti’s No. 27 IndyCar.

Wheldon raced for AGR from 2003-2005, winning the title in his final season. He appeared to be the leading contender for this year’s championship after winning two of the first four races but has been MIA since the Indianapolis 500 in May.

Despite that, Wheldon would be a prime choice to either take over Franchitti’s vacated ride at AGR or Hornish’s No. 6 at Team Penske.

Former IndyCar driver Ryan Briscoe, who competes for Team Penske in the American Le Mans Series, is considered the leading contender to take over Hornish’s IndyCar when the announcement is finally made that Hornish will leave for NASCAR. Hornish is making his Nextel Cup debut this weekend at New Hampshire International Speedway.

That could start a domino effect among IndyCar drivers.

Ryan Hunter-Reay, who clinched the IndyCar Rookie of the Year title on Sunday for Rahal Letterman Racing, could be a candidate at Ganassi if Wheldon leaves. And A.J. Allmandinger recently signed with Ganassi’s NASCAR team to drive the Busch car in several races.

Allmandinger was an open-wheel start in Champ Car before switching to NASCAR this season for Team Red Bull. Allmandinger has struggled with the Toyota team but would be a tremendous addition to the IndyCar Series.

Also, 2007 Indy Pro Series champion Alex Lloyd is confident he will get a decent IndyCar ride next season. The driver from the Isle of Man off the coast of England set IPS records this year with eight victories.

Franchitti will be honored Tuesday night at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway during the IndyCar Series awards ceremony. It will be his last official act as a member of Andretti Green Racing.

Updated Tuesday, Sep 11, 2007