After turning his two laps in time trials yesterday afternoon, Dan Wheldon said -- to no one in particular -- "we suck in qualifying and we need to work on that." But the Briton went on to state, "I think we've got an incredible car for tomorrow's race."
"It was a pretty tough race," the winner noted. "You could see how competitive it was. I'm very, very happy with the result and it's a really, really good way to start the season."
Wheldon won the first of 17 races in the Indy Racing League's tenth anniversary IndyCar Series season over Sam Hornish Jr.'s #6 Marlboro Team Penske Dallara/Toyota which finished 3.6936 seconds behind Wheldon after aiming for his fourth win in five races here.
Hornish had to get around Wheldon's teammate for the win, but Tony Kanaan was expecting him to do just that, settling for third in the #11 Team 7/Eleven Dallara/Honda. "I got a good draft on Tony and felt the air come off his car," Hornish explained. "That's how I got by him" on the last turn of the final lap.
Kanaan, the reigning IndyCar Series champion had his worst finish of the 2004 season at this race when he took eighth place. Improving on that result was a goal and, on the warmup laps he said to his crew, "Let's go for another championship guys."
Vitor Meira snagged fourth place in the sole surviving Rahal Letterman Racing entry, the #17 Menards/Johns Manville Panoz/Honda and remarked, "I certainly could not do anything better. I don't think we had a top-five car but, with the work, doing the right things, we could accomplish that."
Second in this race last year, Helio Castroneves earned fifth place with the second, #3 Marlboro Team Penske Dallara/Toyota. "We tried to be consistent and it paid off." His view of the action toward the end of the race as everyone left jockeyed for position: "That was incredible! It wasn't for the lead, but for second through fifth and it was a hell of a race," the Brazilian emoted.
Darren Manning finished sixth in the #10 Team Target Panoz/Toyota and ran near the front throughout the day. "Sixth place is a solid result for us because we didn't quite have the speed, but we did manage to avoid most of the accidents out there."
Patrick Carpentier's debut in the #83 Red Bull Cheever Racing Dallara/Toyota yielded seventh place as he "stuck on Manning's car there at the end. Today's goal was to finish and finish in the top 10, which we did, but we've got to improve the car for the next race," the French Canadian recounted.
His teammate, Alex Barron was eighth with the #51 Red Bull entry and said he had "really good balance after the first pit stop and the car stayed pretty neutral from then on out. We didn't have the speed but a top-10 finish is not a bad way to start the season."
A.J. Foyt IV took his best IndyCar Series finish in ninth, "but I really didn't deserve it. I was really lucky two times: when we had our pit fire and had to pit again for fuel. By the time we caught up to the field on the restart, they finished crashing!"
A huge accident on the 159th lap following the sixth caution period of this 200-tour contest took out eight Indy cars and pretty much decimated the field.
Those left on the sidelines included polesitter Tomas Scheckter (#4 Pennzoil Panther Dallara/Chevrolet), Kosuke Matsuura's #55 Panasonic/ARTA Panoz/Honda, the #24 Racing for Kids Dallara/Honda of Roger Yasukawa, Scott Sharp's #8 Delphi Panoz/Honda and Bryan Herta's #7 XM Satellite Radio Dallara/Honda.
Scott Dixon in the #9 Team Target Panoz/Toyota got collected in the carnage, as did Ed Carpenter's #20 Vision Dallara/Toyota and Danica Patrick, making her first start in the #16 Argent Mortgage/Pioneer Panoz/Honda.
All eight drivers were released from the medical center prior to the end of the race, but Patrick who had a mild concussion (and could not remember being in the race). She was taken to hospital for observation and released by 6:30PM EST.
About 50,000 sun-drenched fans turned out to watch this season starter and remained on their feet for most of the race. They had quite an entertaining bout to see on this mostly sunny and balmy day.
While the action up front belonged to a select group with Wheldon leading 158 laps in the race, Scheckter pacing the field for 13 laps, Castroneves for nine, Kanaan holding the point for eight laps around the 1.5-mile banked oval, Herta leading five laps and newcomer Patrick Carpentier pacing four laps during pit stop exchanges. Hornish led two laps and Meira led one.
From the start this was an interesting race. Meira took the lead from Scheckter at the start but the South African grabbed it right back again. Herta held the point under the first caution when Dario Franchitti's Honda engine went up in smoke (lap 13) on the #27 ArcaEx Dallara and rendered the Scot first out of the race.
Debris on the front stretch caused the second four-lap caution (laps 33-37) and when most of the field pitted behind Wheldon the lead fell to Carpentier, who had not yet called on the pits. The field went green on lap 38 but four laps later the League found debris between turns 1 and 2 and bunched the field again.
At that point, it was evident Tomas Enge, driver of the #2 ROCKSTAR Dallara/Chevy - who had qualified third - would retire from the race, having come to the pits on the first lap for a gearbox stuck in fifth. He went out for a bit was forced to call it quits, completing only 41 laps total. "In racing," the Czech pronounced, "you have days like this. We will be back."
The fourth yellow came out on lap 63 for rookie Ryan Briscoe, who made his second error in two days and smacked the SAFER barrier in turn 4 with the rear of his car. Aussie Briscoe exited his stricken #33T Team Target Panoz/Toyota realized that, "probably due to lack of experience, I just got a pocket of air in [that] group over in turn 3 and the rear came out on me. That was it," he said.
Wheldon regained the front of the field again and pulled out a couple of seconds on the pursuing pack of Castroneves, Hornish, Scheckter, Meira and Kanaan. Matsuura was in the thick of the pack, running well with them and looked strong to finish in the top ten before "the big one" later on.
On lap 92 the League called another yellow to check the track surface after Buddy Rice's #15 Argent Mortgage/Pioneer Panoz/Honda went up in smoke. The 88th Indianapolis 500 Mile Race winner "saw some smoke coming out and don't know what it was. We have to look at it and I didn't have any idea we would have a problem." He was running mid-pack, having fallen back after the first round of pit stops.
Green emerged on lap 99 and Wheldon again pulled out a good margin on the field. At that time, there were just eight seconds separating the first 17 cars, with the #20 Vision Racing Dallara/Toyota of Carpenter the final driver on the lead lap.
Carpenter later fell a lap back but continued to run fairly well until caught up in the crashfest. A grass fire in turn 4 brought out caution #6 and bunched the field again, just as the #14 Dallara/Toyota of A.J. Foyt IV experienced a fuel spill on his stop at lap 149. Everyone was cycled through in order to place the field in its proper spot and they went green again on lap 158.
That was when the big wreck occurred as everyone dove into the first turn. Matsuura lost the good air from his front wing, had no downforce and clipped Scheckter, who slid into the wall and mayhem just ensued throughout the middle of the pack, leaving only ten cars running after the carnage was cleared.
"This is absolutely ridiculous," Scheckter fumed after being credited with 11th place. "The 55 car tried to make it three-wide on the restart, lost control and cut directly in front of me. I'm sick of this, one guy acts like an idiot and takes out half the field and that endangers a lot of people's lives. I was taking it easy on the track all day and just getting ready to make a run for the win."
Wheldon had a good jump at the green on lap 176 and, praying there would be no other caution tried to pull away. That he did as Kanaan made his car wide as possible, trying to keep Hornish and Castroneves at bay and preserve the victory for his teammate. Chasing Kanaan, Castroneves never realized Meira got a run on him until, with five laps to go, he performed the act, leaving the final chop job to Hornish at the top of the track on the final turn, final lap.
Among his peers, Wheldon is the guy to beat for the 2005 title, which he finds a compliment. "I'm proud my peers think I'm a championship contender," Wheldon mused, "but I'm after a bigger prize." And that would be a drink of milk at Indy on May 29th. As for the balance of the season, today's victor believes "This is going to be THE most competitive championship in the world this year." He could be right.