Credit: Indycar.com/B. Kelley
In anticipation of Dan Wheldon's attempt to net a 2.5-million-dollar bonus for himself and a lucky fan in the GoDaddy IndyCar Challenge in Las Vegas in 3 weeks' time, Alex Tagliani will be vacating the seat of the #77 Bowers & Wilkins at Magnolia Dallara for the Meijer 300 at Kentucky Speedway to make way for Wheldon. The courtesy move, enacted by team owner Sam Schmidt and backed by team-player Tagliani, is intended to allow Wheldon to get a warmup race in the books prior to going for the jackpot prize in Las Vegas.
Sam Schmidt, Owner, No. 77 Bowers & Wilkins Honda/Dallara
“I am incredibly excited to have Dan Wheldon driving the No. 77 Bowers & Wilkins at Magnolia car at Kentucky. Clearly, this is an amazing opportunity for our team and sponsors. We are putting as much energy and resources into winning the Go Daddy INDYCAR Challenge as we did for the Indy 500 with the intent of making one lucky fan an instant millionaire and capping off a great rookie season for SSM. I also appreciate Tag’s support of this program. Being a race car driver myself, it would be extremely difficult to step out of a car I helped develop, but Alex is a true professional and team player in our pursuit to win this prize.”
Wheldon brings with him a wealth of experience to the table when it comes to the 1.5 mile speedways. Of his 16 career victories, 15 have come on ovals, and 11 have come on ovals of 1.5 miles in length or longer. Combining both the talent in the cockpit and the talent on the Sam Schmidt staff, this blogger wouldn't be shocked to see Dan sneak into the top 5 if not steal the win in Kentucky. To further bolster his confidence, Wheldon is going to be coming fresh off a 3-day test at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in the 2012 car. Tomorrow, Dan begins his driving stint that will see him driving and IndyCar on an oval for 6 successive days. Will he be worn out? Maybe, but nobody will be able to argue that Dan won't be on his best game heading into this two-race stretch. Personally, I truly feel that the test program Dan has with the 2012 car is going to make him a better driver, but I also think that going back to the 2003 Dallara after doing a ton of driving with the 2012 Dallara is going to throw off his vibe in some fashion. I think he'll manage though, like I said, this is going to ultimately improve his caliber of racecraft.
In terms of the team's performance, I don't think that that strong run Dan had at Kentucky with Panther last season was strictly Panther's doing.. I guarantee you that Dan went in there and hollered and pointed out what they were doing respective to his experience with Ganassi and what they could improve upon. With the Schmidt organization, Tagliani, Wheldon, and Townsend Bell collaborated with their respective teams and engineering staff to put their 3 Schmidt-associated cars in the top 6 on Pole Day at Indy. Tagliani has been fast on all the speedways this season, so with the combined season-long input from Tagliani in addition to what Dan brings to the table in terms of experience, I have a strong suspicion (barring bonehead moves on other drivers' parts) we'll see Wheldon keeping the #77 Bowers & Wilkins Dallara looking sharp at or near the front of the field all weekend long. The main focus for Dan obviously is to ensure that there are no gremlins in the works, but as a secondary focus, I think he'll be taking some lengths to help get Wade Cunningham comfortable (but fast) over the bumps. After all, any damage incurred by rookie mistakes on Cunningham's part is money that could otherwise be spent on go-fast bits and massaging of the #98 Dallara for maximum speed both in traffic and out front at Las Vegas.
Dan Wheldon is an exciting driver to watch regardless of where or what he races. If this season's Ketucky race is anything like last year's was, I expect it to be a massively entertaining race for both the fans in the stands and the viewers at home.
Snippets: Brembo brakes confirmed as the exclusive supplier of carbon brake systems through ~2015... Tomas Scheckter signed to drive Sarah Fisher Racing #57 Angie's List Special in Las Vegas Finale, will partner former Vision Racing teammate Ed Carpenter... Wade Cunningham to make second career start at Kentucky Speedway... Firestone Indy Lights points leader Josef Newgarden can clinch his first career Firestone Indy Lights championship with a finish of 13th or better at Kentucky... Townsend Bell to return to Indycar competition with Dreyer and Reinbold in #22 as a substitute for Justin Wilson.