Here is where I will inject a personal note: when I was a kid, Michael Andretti was my favorite driver. He was fast, American, and he had the Andretti name. He may never have reached the career heights of his father Mario, but he made his own way and was a champion in his own right. I was disappointed when Michael decided to retire, but became an immediate Wheldon fan when he took over my childhood hero’s seat. Wheldon quickly gained popularity for his aggressive but intelligent driving, his good looks, and his unending friendliness to both competitors and fans. He was one of the most personable drivers in the paddock.
Wheldon had a stellar period at Andretti. He won 9 races in 2004 and 2005. This tally included the 2005 Indy 500 as well as the last ever race at the Nazareth Speedway, the longtime home of both the Andretti family and Penske Racing. In fact Wheldon led an Andretti 1-2-3 at Nazareth, a fitting end to a unique and wonderful track’s history. Wheldon capped this period by winning the 2005 IRL championship. In 2005, Dan was unstoppable and clinched the championship with one race to go. In fact the only thing bigger than Wheldon was Danica Patrick. Danica made her rookie start in 2005 and lead a handful of laps at that year’s Indy 500, the first ever for a woman.
In 2006, Wheldon moved to Chip Ganassi Racing to replace Ryan Briscoe. Before the season began, Wheldon filled out Ganassi’s Grand Am roster for the 24 Hours of Daytona and ended up winning. His first year was strong, winning twice and finishing 2nd in the championship to Sam Hornish Jr. In fact the pair tied in points, but Hornish won the championship due to earning more wins than Wheldon. Wheldon’s next two seasons were solid, but less successful than his early seasons. He still won races, but was gathering more headlines for incidents with Patrick than anything else. Patrick was already well known for having a bit of a temper and chasing down and arguing with other drivers after getting into incidents with them.
Wheldon had no time for Danica’s shenanigans and didn’t take any of her crap: this made him the perfect foil for media reports trying to drum up interest in IndyCar and keep Danica Mania strong. Unfortunately for Wheldon, the relationship with Ganassi soured and he left the team at the end of 2008 to make way for his former teammate Dario Franchitti. Franchitti was making a return from a miserable season for Ganassi’s NASCAR Cup team. Wheldon felt he was being betrayed by Ganassi and left the team before the season completed.
At this point Wheldon’s career took a downward turn. He returned to Panther Racing, but Panther had slipped substantially since the early 2000s. Panther was a big team compared to the underfunded IRL teams of the 1990s, but was a small team compared to Penske, Ganassi, and Andretti. Additionally, as the IRL began absorbing CART dates, the schedule moved away from the oval tracks where Panther Racing were strongest. Both of these moves weakened the team considerably. Wheldon did finish 2nd in both the 2009 and 2010 Indy 500s, but those were the highlights of his time with his first team. By the middle of 2010, the relationship between Panther Racing and Wheldon had disintegrated with Wheldon eventually suing the team for lack of payment to the tune of nearly $400,000. Wheldon fully expected to continue with Panther in 2011, but late in 2010, John Barnes officially let him go.