- John Schwarb
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INDIANAPOLIS -- Go figure: a big race with a car featuring a gimmicky paint job. Though in the case of Dan Wheldon's full-camouflage National Guard ride, there's some symbolism beyond sponsorship.
In the early going of 2009, Wheldon is fading into the background of the IndyCar Series with Panther Racing, after five standout seasons with two of the big three teams in the league. But years -- not to mention careers -- are made at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and Wheldon is arguably the best active driver at the track outside two-time winner and 2009 pole-sitter Helio Castroneves.
Wheldon won the Indianapolis 500 in 2005 for Andretti Green Racing and leads all active drivers with 234 laps led. He hopes to find that magic again May 24, though Wheldon will start that quest from the 18th starting position, his lowest spot in seven 500 starts.
The 30-year-old Englishman had an eventful weekend, spinning in Turn 2 while practicing Saturday afternoon and backing the No. 4 Dallara-Honda into the fence. A car that he felt was outside Row 1 or Row 2 material had to instead wait until Sunday to qualify, when the second 11 of the 33 starting positions were available.
"I take it very personally, not contending for the front row," Wheldon said. "It's not why I do this -- I do it to win. I don't like not being at the front, that's what I'm going to work hard towards."
Through three races this year, Wheldon hasn't seen the front yet. He finished 14th and fifth on the streets of St. Petersburg, Fla., and Long Beach, Calif., then 10th at Kansas, an especially disappointing result for a driver used to oval-track success. He's 11th in points, with two drivers in front of him in Will Power and Castroneves who have run only two of the first three races.
Contrast that to Wheldon's career from 2004 through last season, in which he won 15 times with five top-4 points finishes, including the 2005 series title. The past three seasons were with Target Chip Ganassi Racing, but when Dario Franchitti moved back to IndyCar from NASCAR at the end of last year, Ganassi put him in Wheldon's No. 10 and Wheldon landed with Panther Racing.
Panther, Wheldon's first IndyCar employer at the end of 2002, was a series power with Sam Hornish Jr.'s back-to-back titles in 2001-02, but hasn't been any better than the fourth-best group in recent years behind TCGR, AGR and Team Penske.
Wheldon aims to change all that, but is finding it to be a slow charge.
I take it very personally, not contending for the front row. It's not why I do this -- I do it to win. I don't like not being at the front, that's what I'm going to work hard towards.
”-- Dan Wheldon
"I certainly believed I would be a contender from the get-go, so that's incredibly frustrating, but we'll fix it," Wheldon said. "It's difficult; you're up against these big teams and I've been obviously on two of the three the last six years. Those guys are incredibly motivated to win; they have the financial backing to be able to do so.
"We've got more budget than ever, but it takes time. To tell you the truth, it probably has taken more time than I thought it would, but it doesn't stop me trying."
No driver needs motivation in May, and past champions might have more than the rest, knowing the feeling of being on top of the racing world. Wheldon was there in 2005 -- from the 16th starting spot -- and nearly again in 2006 when he led 148 of the first 182 laps, only to have a cut tire ruin his chance for a second consecutive win (he finished fourth). In the rain-shortened 2007 event he crashed with Marco Andretti, sending the AGR car on an upside-down wild ride.
Last season he started second alongside pole-sitting teammate Scott Dixon, but handling problems plagued him throughout the day and he finished 12th, well behind Dixon's winning effort.
"I've been to Indianapolis and experienced some of the best times of my life, and I've also experienced some of the worst," Wheldon said. "That's what this track is about, and this race in particular. We just need to continue to figure out this problem.
"The car has been a little bit unpredictable. Certainly when I drove for Target Chip Ganassi the last two years the car seemed very much on edge but to some degree predictable."
It's hard for Wheldon to forget the good times at Ganassi, and reminders come back at funny times. On Sunday after he posted his qualifying effort, the No. 4 was parked on pit road for the traditional Indy 500 team photo. While Wheldon stood alone in the cockpit, his old No. 10 car drove by, heading out for practice, followed by the No. 9.
Those two cars had qualified Saturday in the first two rows, one day before Wheldon, but those details will be moot by race day. Wheldon's goal is to make them all forgettable, pulling away to a second Indy 500 win in a car that would defy its livery.
"It'll be difficult to see me coming on race day," Wheldon said. "But I'll be coming, all right."
John Schwarb is a motorsports contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.