Byline: ALAN TAYS, Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
HOMESTEAD -- Dan Wheldon turned Sunday's Indy Racing League opener into a two-hour game of follow the leader . . . but not too closely.
The 26-year-old Englishman, who finished second in the point standings a year ago, gave notice that last season was no fluke, winning the Toyota Indy 300 in dominating fashion.
"I think Dan is going to be one of the guys to beat" for the championship, said Wheldon's car owner, Michael Andretti.
Wheldon led 158 of the race's 200 laps in the No. 26 Klein Tools/Jim Beam Andretti Green Racing entry. His Honda engine powered him to the lead from an 11th-place start and consistently boosted him to the front after the race's seven caution periods.
Wheldon finished a roomy 3.6936 seconds ahead of defending race champion Sam Hornish Jr., who just nipped Wheldon's teammate, Tony Kanaan, at the finish.
Only 10 cars of the 22 starters were running at the end of the 300-mile race around Homestead-Miami Speedway's 1.5-mile banked oval. A pileup on Lap 159 claimed eight drivers, including Tequesta's Scott Sharp, who was making his first start for his new team, Delphi Fernandez Racing. Sharp finished 13th.
Also involved in the wreck was IRL rookie Danica Patrick, the only woman in the race. She was taken to Baptist Hospital in Kendall, where doctors determined she sustained a concussion. She was released Sunday night.
Pole-sitter Tomas Scheckter led for just 13 laps and finished 11th, also caught up in the Lap 159 accident.
Buddy Rice, the 2004 Indy 500 winner, went out after 92 laps with a smoking car. "It's a shame because we felt very confident about the car," Rice said.
Wheldon was happy to win the season opener, but his focus was on race No. 5.
"I've got to be honest," Wheldon said. "My passion is the Indianapolis 500. The championship's great and all, but my focus is that. I'd love to be drinking the milk, and I just hope I can keep maintaining this momentum until the Indy 500."
The final laps came down to Andretti Green's Wheldon and Kanaan and Marlboro Team Penske's Hornish and Helio Castroneves. But Wheldon had too much car for anyone else, so the best battle of the race was for second.
"Any time you've got a Penske around you, you've got to be on your toes," Wheldon said. "Certainly that last stint, I had Hornish breathing down my neck pretty hard. Then I think as he started to get challenged, I was able to break away.
"I wasn't a ton quicker than anybody else, but just enough when the others started racing, I could break away."
"He was pretty quick," said Hornish, who recorded his fourth top-two finish in five starts on this track. "Never made a mistake all day. He just kept going around and did what he had to do."
Kanaan, the defending series champion, said he knew his teammate "was stronger than me from Day One." Wheldon, Kanaan said, is "getting his confidence higher and higher. I said even before he won this race, I think (Wheldon is) going to be a tough guy to beat."
Toyota Indy 300
Driver Car St. Fin. Dan Wheldon Dallara-Honda 11 1 Sam Hornish Jr. Dallara-Toyota 8 2 Tony Kanaan Dallara-Toyota 14 3
1. ROBERT LABERGE/Getty Images
Actress Tara Reid (left), the honorary starter for Sunday's race, and boxer Roy Jones Jr. (right), the race's grand marshal, celebrate race winner Dan Wheldon on the victory podium.
2. LUIS M. ALVAREZ/Staff Photographer
Bryan Herta sits in his Dallara Honda after a crash on Turn 1 of the IRL Indy 300 on Sunday.