Byline: John Sturbin
FORT WORTH, Texas _ Dan Wheldon says anyone projecting him as a contender for the 2005 IRL IndyCar Series championship is looking at a sure thing.
"I've been a title contender this year, so there's no reason why that trend is not going to continue," said Wheldon, who will conclude his "breakout season" in the Chevy 500 on Sunday at Texas Motor Speedway. "Yeah, I do think I'll be a title contender in 2005, but you're going to have to work really, really hard to stay as competitive as we are as a team. Because there's a lot of people gunning for us, and a lot of people capable of beating us."
Tony Kanaan, Wheldon's teammate at Andretti Green Racing, clinched the 2004 IndyCar driver's championship at California Speedway on Oct. 3. Wheldon and Buddy Rice of Rahal Letterman Racing will decide second place in the overall standings during Sunday's 200-lap race around the 1.5-mile TMS quadoval.
"To be honest, that's not even our focus," said Wheldon, who leads Rice by 21 points. "Our focus is to try and win the race. Buddy's done an excellent job, and he's going to be really fast. But you can't plan this race."
In fact, Wheldon began his second Indy Racing League season in February armed with the sage advice of team manager Tony Cotman.
"When you start a season, I think you've got to be prepared for the unexpected. Expect the unexpected," Cotman said. "People expect certain things, and if you go looking for them, you're going to get caught out by other things. You must always be prepared for the unexpected."
Cotman said Wheldon's 2004 season does not fall into that category. The 26-year-old Englishman backed up his selection as 2003 IndyCar Series Bombardier Rookie of the Year with two poles, three victories, 11 top-five and 12 top-10 results in 15 starts. He has led 419 laps, second only to Kanaan's runaway 884.
"If you look back in the history of the IRL, Dan would probably be leading or winning the championship right now," said Cotman, a 37-year-old native of Auckland, New Zealand. "It just happens this year he ran into a powerful force in Tony, who has completed every lap, finished every race, finished in the top five ... it's one of those seasons where a guy is on fire. It's nothing to be disappointed about or ashamed about."
Wheldon certainly has closed the season like a bona fide contender. Beginning with race No. 10 at the two-mile Michigan International Speedway on Aug. 1, Wheldon has not finished lower than fourth in six consecutive events. That streak includes his third and most recent victory on the one-mile Nazareth (Pa.) Speedway on Aug. 29, and four third-place results. Wheldon, driver of the No. 26 Dallara/Honda, also has victories at the 1.5-mile Twin Ring Motegi in Japan _ where he led a staggering 192 of 200 laps _ and the 0.75-mile Richmond (Va.) International Raceway.
"I've still got a lot to learn, don't get me wrong," said Wheldon, youngest driver of a four-car AGR armada that also includes Dario Franchitti and Bryan Herta. "Just being in the same championship, going back to the same tracks, being with the same team, having the same people around me has made a big difference. I think that's why I'm able to run at the front consistently now and constantly challenge for wins.
"But I think all three of my teammates are championship contenders. I'd never discount one of them."
Cotman said his prot'g' is learning how to walk the line between confident and cocky.
"It's a fine line for a driver. He's a young guy, he's on the top of his game, he's in demand," said Cotman, who joined the organization founded by Australian Barry Green in 1990. "I think he's very talented. Is Dan a superstar in the making? If things keep going like they are, yeah, he could be."
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