Commentary

Victory at Iowa just icing on the cake for birthday boy Wheldon

As far as birthdays go, this one takes the cake. Dan Wheldon turned 30 on Sunday, and the ol' man celebrated the occasion by holding off hard-charging rookie Hideki Mutoh and upstart Marco Andretti to win the IndyCar Series race at Iowa Speedway.

Updated: June 23, 2008, 11:17 PM ET
By John Oreovicz | Special to ESPN.com

NEWTON, Iowa -- Sunday was Dan Wheldon's 30th birthday. His rivals provided plenty of gifts.

Under glorious sunny skies at Iowa Speedway, Scott Dixon had a rare off day (he finished fourth), Tony Kanaan crashed, and Helio Castroneves faded.

And the rest of the IndyCar field, led by rookie Hideki Mutoh, simply didn't have the speed to beat Wheldon. It all added up to victory in the second running of the Iowa Corn Indy 250, Wheldon's second win of the season and the fifth for Target Chip Ganassi Racing in 2008.

In a year that has been dominated by his teammate Dixon, Wheldon and his No. 10 crew made all the right moves. A weekend that started badly when Wheldon was swept into Bruno Junqueira's practice crash and had to race his spare car ended in Victory Lane.

Pass the birthday cake.

"It turned out excellent," Wheldon said. "Everybody at Target Chip Ganassi Racing did an excellent job."

Even though he was the birthday boy, Wheldon was in a giving mood on Sunday. Both he and Dixon pledged at least a portion -- if not all -- of their winnings to Iowa flood victims. How much that will be remained unclear because the IRL no longer publishes earnings, but Wheldon picked up a $35,000 bonus for winning and Dixon got an extra $15,000 for finishing fourth.

"I hope we put a smile on their faces, because it was certainly a packed house," Wheldon said.

The key move came when team manager Barry Wanser (who was deputized to replace the absent Chip Ganassi) told Wheldon to stay on track when the rest of the field pitted under caution on Lap 190 of 225. Andretti Green Racing teammates Mutoh and Danica Patrick (who finished seventh) were the only drivers to utilize what was ultimately the correct fuel strategy.

The reason for the lengthy yellow that allowed that trio to stretch their final tank of ethanol fuel 90 laps was a surprise: Kanaan's Turn 1 crash. The Brazilian speculated that something malfunctioned on the 7-Eleven car.

"It was really weird," he reported. "It's tough to say what happened, although I was behind two cars. I can't say something broke, but it sure seems that way."

Kanaan looked like the man to beat through the first 150 laps, aggressively passing for the lead on a couple of occasions. A series of minor spins and incidents blighted the last 100 laps of the contest, and set up the fuel-mileage quandary that set up Wheldon's win.

Mutoh also took advantage of running the same fuel strategy to notch the best finish of his IndyCar career.
[+] EnlargeDan Wheldon
Darrell Ingham/Getty ImagesDeclared Dan Wheldon after Sunday's win: "What a great day for Target Chip Ganassi Racing and a great birthday present for me."

"I'm so pleased for the result," Mutoh said. "The team did a really good job with the strategy."

Mutoh was able to cleanly hold off two of his teammates late in the race, though things got close with third-place finisher Marco Andretti a couple of times.

"I think we both did good," said Mutoh, whose finish was the best in IndyCar Series history for a Japanese driver.

Andretti felt he could have challenged for the win if he had run the same fuel strategy as Wheldon and Mutoh.

"Who knows?" he pondered. "I think if we had the speed to get by Mutoh we would have had the speed to get by Dan."

Maybe it was the fact that he raced in a blue car sponsored by Commit tobacco cessation lozenges rather than his usual red and white Target machine, because Dixon didn't look like himself Sunday.

He admitted that he wouldn't have started on the pole if qualifying had not been rained out, and he dropped back fairly quickly in the race, generally running between third and sixth.

"I spent the first half of the race trying to get the car to work on the bottom," he said. "Once I started running high, the car was actually pretty good, but we had too much drag in the car to get by people."

Dixon still managed to extend his championship lead to 48 points over Castroneves, who dropped from sixth to 14th in the last 10 laps. Wheldon moved up to third, 49 points back. Then there is a long gap to Kanaan (minus-100), who has some work to do to restart his championship challenge.

"Not a bad weekend in terms of the championship," Dixon said.

Behind Dixon, A.J. Foyt IV scored his best finish of the season for Vision Racing, while Patrick faded from third to sixth in the final stint. She also incurred the wrath of several drivers throughout the day, including Vision's Ed Carpenter.

"Danica gave me her usual supreme block job and she's the new Scott Sharp of the series as far as I'm concerned," Carpenter said. "That's two races in a row I've had to deal with that and I'm about over it."

Ryan Hunter-Reay, who ran as high as third before finishing eighth in a Rahal Letterman Racing entry sponsored by a consortium of ethanol producers, spent much of the last week in flood-ravaged Iowa.

"Everybody I talked to said it has been a positive that we came here and raced after the floods -- not a negative," Hunter-Reay said.

John Oreovicz covers open-wheel racing for National Speed Sport News and ESPN.com.

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