Dan Wheldon says every Indy 500 has a theme.
Last year, it was the emergence of Danica Patrick, who grabbed the spotlight while Wheldon cruised to his first career Indianapolis 500 win, propelling him to a dominant run to the IndyCar championship.
This year, Wheldon says there will probably be so much hullabaloo about familiar names returning to the Brickyard ... Al Unser Jr., Michael Andretti, Eddie Cheever.
And, if he can put it all together in his new Target-Chip Ganassi Racing entry, he’d be OK with handling the minor details, like winning the race.
“Having won that race, I’m still as motivated to go back and win again,” Wheldon said. “There’s just something about that event that captures you.”
After all, this is the guy who said he didn’t care that Patrick, who finished fourth, appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated. It was good for the sport, he said, plus he was more than OK with what he had achieved.
“It gives you a great sense of self-satisfaction,” the 27-year-old Wheldon said Wednesday, visiting Lee County to promote Sunday’s season-opening Toyota Indy 300 at Homestead-Miami Speedway. “If you’ve dreamed of wanting to do something for so long and you finally achieve that, especially at a young age, that’s all that really matters.
“I had achieved something that growing up I wanted to achieve. That’s enough.”
Wheldon enters Sunday’s race as the defending series champion. He kicked off 2005, only his third in the series, with a win at Homestead and didn’t look back. The Emberton, England, native romped for six wins and 15 Top 10 finishes in 17 races. Tony Kanaan, then his teammate, finished a distant second.
At Indianapolis, Wheldon qualified 16th and didn’t reach the front of the pack until lap 150 of 200. Wheldon said what makes Indy so tough is the demands on the car and driver ... you must have the raw speed, the handling, the consistency and the patience to get to the front.
“Believe it or not, I think qualifying 16th helped that in a strange way,” Wheldon said. “It made me focus so much on making sure I had a good race car, that come the race we’ve covered all our bases.”
But those moments all came with Andretti Green Racing, who replaced the departing Wheldon with Marco Andretti, son of series great Michael Andretti and grandson of racing legend Mario Andretti.
Wheldon enters 2006 with a new team, Target-Chip Ganassi Racing, a new teammate in Scott Dixon and familiar Honda power. Wheldon said he accomplished so much so soon with Team Green, he felt it was time for a new challenge.
“We had a great time together, but winning those things as young as I did, I thought it was time for a change,” Wheldon said. “I spoke with Chip, and he gives you a very good feeling that you’re going to share a lot more success with him, and I liked that. ... I thought to continue the success I had in 2005 would be best done with Chip’s team.”
And that means winning races — lots of them.
“I like to just win as much as I can,” Wheldon said. “If you win enough races and just do the best job you can do, you’re either going to win the championship or you’re not. ... I like to just be aggressive and approach it that way. That way makes me happy. I like to win races.”