Commentary

Former champ Wheldon trying to shake out of deep slump

Dan Wheldon said two months ago Danica Patrick was feeling the pressure of not winning. Now he finds himself in the same boat, writes John Schwarb.

Updated: August 11, 2007, 11:21 PM ET
By John Schwarb | Special to ESPN.com

SPARTA, Ky. -- Dan Wheldon delivered one of the more memorable quotes of this IndyCar Series season, discussing an on-track incident and subsequent postrace conversation with Danica Patrick at the Milwaukee Mile.

"She's probably feeling the pressure of not winning races when her teammates are," Wheldon said in June.

Two months later, could Wheldon be the one living those words?

The Target/Ganassi Racing driver and 2005 series champion is in the midst of the biggest slump since his 2003 rookie season, failing to record a top-5 finish in the past four races and six of the last seven. While teammate Scott Dixon has surged with a series-record-tying three consecutive wins within the past month, closing to within 8 points of Indianapolis 500 winner Dario Franchitti for the points lead, Wheldon has lost the dominant form he had at the outset of the year and has slipped to fourth in the standings.

Barring a miracle, Wheldon will not go to Chicagoland Speedway next month with a title shot as he did last year, ultimately losing via a total-wins tiebreaker to Team Penske's Sam Hornish Jr.

Those two were involved in an early crash at Kentucky Speedway on Saturday that virtually ended their chances this season. Wheldon finished 17th, one spot ahead of Hornish in dead last.

Wheldon claims the frustration of that fact is not showing on the racetrack, but a frightening crash last week started with his No. 10 Dallara-Honda.

Last week at Michigan, Wheldon was at the forefront of a multi-car accident that sent Franchitti airborne in a ride that fortunately did not injure Franchitti or any other driver. The two chatted for the first time Friday about the incident and, according to Franchitti, failed to see eye to eye.

"I do think he was out of line. I tried to talk to him about it today and he was having none of it," said Franchitti, who had his Andretti Green Racing Indianapolis 500-winning car destroyed in the accident. "If Dan thinks he did nothing wrong, he's the only person I've spoken to in the last week [who thinks so]. I don't think he did it on purpose, but I think he should take responsibility for his mistake.

"He's on the inside, normally the guy on the inside holds the white line down the straight, I was three car-widths up and he was shadowing me. He told me this morning in the brief conversation that there were some aerodynamic reasons he was trying to stay so close. It's disappointing. Dan and I have known each other a long time. I didn't expect this kind of attitude or behavior from him."

Wheldon admitted Franchitti had the fastest car at Michigan and that "we let that slip a little bit." That was as far as he would go, claiming that through his summer swoon his driving style has not changed and there's no more pressure than he would usually put on himself.

"I'm tough on myself and always want to be as quick as possible, there's been a lot of stuff that's gone on that's been out of my control," Wheldon said. "It's just hasn't really run our way, eventually that's going to change.

"When we get out of this funk, we'll just continue where we normally do."

His degree of normalcy at the start of the season was complete domination that at the time made it appear that the 2007 season would be a Wheldon runaway. He won from the pole at Homestead-Miami by six seconds, leading 179 of 200 laps. After a ninth at St. Petersburg he finished second at Twin Ring Motegi, Japan, again leading a race-high 126 laps.

In the season's fourth race at Kansas he was again unstoppable, leading 177 of 200 laps to collect his second win and solidify a first-place spot in the standings.

But as quickly as that momentum was amassed, it vanished at the season's most important stop.

"The most frustrating race was Indy, the first three days we were absolutely dominant and then for whatever reason we didn't have the same speed with the same car," said Wheldon, who would qualify sixth and finish 22nd after another accident that sent an AGR car airborne, that time the car of Marco Andretti.

Then came Milwaukee, a third-place day overshadowed by the run-in with Patrick. Texas Motor Speedway's race was marketed as a showdown between Patrick and Wheldon, but that never materialized. Patrick ran a solid third while Wheldon, by no fault of his own, was collected in the day's big crash on Lap 197, which included Dixon and four other drivers.

Dan Wheldon
I'm tough on myself and always want to be as quick as possible, there's been a lot of stuff that's gone on that's been out of my control. It's just hasn't really run our way, eventually that's going to change.

Dan Wheldon

"My cars have been fast, we've just been in unlucky situations," Wheldon said.

Before Michigan he had three weeks of lead-lap finishes, but seventh at Watkins Glen, eighth at Nashville and 10th at Mid-Ohio were not what he was looking for.

His last top-five finish was a third at Richmond, where he finished a quiet third behind Franchitti's overpowering car and Dixon.

"I've been in that situation before. You may go slower sometimes, it's just one of those things," Dixon said. "If it's your car that's good that weekend, it's good. I've been on the bad side of it, I've been on the good side of it."

The bad side of it continues.

John Schwarb is a freelance journalist covering motorsports and a contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at johnschwarb@yahoo.com.