INDY RACING LEAGUE NEWS AND NOTES -- Oct. 27, 2005

Today's IRL headlines
1. Jones engineers Wheldon's championship
2. Rice, Castroneves prepare for final IROC event
3. Panther Racing hands out Fan Tour prizes

1. Jones engineers Wheldon's championship: Eddie Jones unabashedly says that IndyCar Series champion Dan Wheldon can join the ranks of legends A.J. Foyt, Rick Mears, Al Unser and Johnny Rutherford.

It is an analysis not to be taken lightly. In 30-plus years in motorsports, Jones has been a successful race car driver, mechanic, designer, chief engineer and company executive. For the past 2½ years, he's been Wheldon's race engineer with the No. 26 Klein Tools/Jim Beam Dallara/Honda/Firestone for Andretti Green Racing.

"I don't see a weakness in Dan," Jones said. "We've raced on all sorts of tracks. I honestly think he could emerge as the best of his generation. That's how good I think he is."

At the tracks, Jones and Wheldon communicate well and work hard. After hours, they're often found together raising a glass to their efforts. They have forged a winning combination.

"On a personal level, we clicked from the start," said the longtime engineer, who inherited Wheldon as part student, part comrade after Michael Andretti retired from the IndyCar Series during the 2003 season. "I could recognize his talent. I suppose what helps is that I've been in racing for a long, long time. My father was involved in it and I grew up with it.

"I have experience at every level of racing, so I appreciate what the driver is dealing with all the time. I was able to relate to Dan in his early stages and some of the difficulties of performing at this level of racing -- the highest level. Sometimes it wasn't easy for him as talented as he is and always was. So I think I was perhaps able to help during some of the difficult stages.

"He recognized and appreciated how I was helping him, and that just strengthened our bond. He came to realize and believe I was someone he could always trust; I never mislead him in any way. Many of my decisions are wrong, and I never hide anything from Dan, and I'll always admit that was clearly the wrong thing to do. He appreciates that. All in all, our real honesty with each other has paid dividends.

"Really, that's how it started, how it developed and how it continues."

It is a partnership, though Wheldon garners the headlines and is in line for the big-dollar contract. That's fine with Jones, who has been associated with Andretti Green Racing and its forbearer Team Green since 1997 in Indy Lights with drivers such as Greg Ray, Chris Simmons, Naoki Hattori and Jonny Kane.

Jones became Andretti's race engineer in 2001 and has helped Wheldon develop through wildly successful seasons -- 2003 Bombardier Rookie of the Year, series runner-up to teammate Tony Kanaan in 2004, and the double of Indianapolis 500 and series champion this year.

Their professional and personal relationship, with the girding of trust and respect, also has developed. Sure, the ultra competitive Wheldon is demanding. He wants a perfect car every practice, qualifying and race. More often than not, aided by the No. 26 Klein Tools/Jim Beam crew, they quickly zero in on the solution more than a compromise. Results -- series-record six victories and 15 races led, and the pacesetter in laps led -- were some of the tangible rewards this year.

"Having been a driver myself, I realize how frustrating it can be at times," said Jones, who noted that Wheldon accomplished the feats without the aid of one pole position. "And I'm quite able to judge when Dan is blowing off steam because he has to at that moment. I always tell him, 'Direct your frustration at me, not the crew. I can take it on the chin.' And I know it's not personal. Then we calmly approach the solution to what's frustrating us and him.

"There are some events where we've certainly had good luck and good results. But I think it's been particularly rewarding that there were other events where Dan has gone out and won them -- beaten the whole field -- and actually come from behind to do so. Like Indy."

Wheldon, not one to shy from the spotlight, is humbled by the analysis. Only four years ago he was the kid who had the minor-league pedigree but couldn't convince a team to take a chance. Now he's on top of the world -- with a lot of help from his friends.

"I think he's the only guy I've had a relationship with where actually I don't even need to tell him how the car is," said Wheldon, 27, who is unwinding this fall with a few karting events in the United States and South America after the grueling 17-race IndyCar Series season. "He can get a pretty good idea just from my expressions and my demeanor.

"I think certainly Eddie Jones is more confident about going down our own setup path now, whereas before we perhaps wouldn't have ventured off in such a direct way. I mean, we really sometimes go our own route. It takes confidence to do that and trust in not just me but the other people involved in the Klein Tools/Jim Beam team.

"I think everybody has the confidence in me to know that if it isn't right, we can go back to another setup and it's not going to take me awhile to feel it out. I can get on it pretty quickly. Likewise, if it's good, Eddie and I can keep improving on it and make it even better to the point in some races where it's been dominant, like Pikes Peak. Certainly we went our own route kind of at that track, and it paid off for us. There's been some times where it does bite you, too. Fortunately with the experience together, we've been able to limit that."

***

2. Rice, Castroneves prepare for final IROC event: Buddy Rice looked at the standings after three rounds of the Crown Royal International Race of Champions and saw an opportunity. He'll attempt to seize it in the season finale of the all-star series Oct. 29 at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

The Rahal Letterman Racing driver is two points shy of second-place Kurt Busch and Matt Kenseth (former IROC champions) and one point behind reigning NASCAR Busch Series champion Martin Truex Jr. entering the 65-lap race on the 1.54-mile quad-oval.

Rice, the 2004 Indianapolis 500 winner, can't claim the $1 million bonus for winning the four-race series (NASCAR Nextel Cup driver Mark Martin has clinched the crown), but runner-up in his first foray into driving the equally prepared cars would be welcome.

"The cars are good and running pretty close; it should be exciting," said Rice, who has finished fifth (Daytona), third (Texas) and fourth (Richmond). "There are a lot of little things you can do to try to keep up, so hopefully, we'll be able to learn enough here in the next couple of days to get up front and keep it there on Saturday."

Rice will start eighth in the 12-car field (1:30 p.m. EDT live on SPEED) in the No. 15 car. Marlboro Team Penske's Helio Castroneves will start on the front row in the No. 3 car. He has finishes of eighth, 10th and 11th.

Race format

Distance -- 100.1 miles, 65 laps (yellow flag laps do not count.)

Shootout format - At Lap 45, the yellow flag will be displayed. The cars will be brought down pit road for a routine pit stop.

Shootout bonus points -- 3, 2, 1, respectively, awarded to the top three at the time of the Lap 45 caution flag. If an incident occurs within a five-lap window of the scheduled Lap 45 stop, race officials may elect to perform the routine pit stop at the time of the unscheduled caution. The drivers will be notified that the bonus points (3-2-1) will be awarded at the conclusion of the fifth consecutive lap of green flag racing after the restart.

Shootout restart -- The field will realign as they finished before the mandatory pit stop, however, the field will be given lane choice starting with the leader. Each driver, one-by-one, in ascending order, will choose to restart in either the inside lane or outside lane. Race bonus points - 5, 4, 3, respectively, to the drivers who lead most laps, second and third most laps.

***

3. Panther Racing hands out Fan Tour prizes: Kathy Weber is the grand prize winner in Panther Racing's Fan Tour contest. She wins a 2005 Chevrolet Cobalt.

Weber, from Harleysville, Penn., entered the Fan Tour via Panther Racing's website early in the season. She was the 644th person to enter, out of nearly 20,000 participants.

The Panther-edition Cobalt is a limited-edition SS, five-speed model.

Other winners include: Edward Mattson, Hartford City, Ind., Segway; Laurie Griffith, Novi, Mich., MasterCraft wakeboard featuring Tomas Scheckter and the No. 4 Pennzoil Panther Chevrolet; Marilyn Prange, Lowell, Ind., free Jiffy Lube oil changes for one year; and Debra Waldo, Russellville, Ark., a free case of RockStar Energy Drink.

***

The IRL IndyCar Series opens the 2006 season with the Toyota Indy 300 on March 26, 2006 at Homestead-Miami Speedway. The race will be broadcast live on ABC Sports and the IMS Radio Network. The fifth season of Menards Infiniti Pro Series competition also opens on March 26 at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

-irl-