IRL: Wheldon's dream season

When the Indy Racing League IndyCar Series opened the 2005 season at Homestead Miami Speedway in March, Dan Wheldon provided fans with a preview of what was to come over the next 16 races. The young Englishman's dream season kicked off with a victory at the season opener at Homestead.

Dan Wheldon.
Photo by Michael C. Johnson.
At Phoenix, although Wheldon managed to put the Klein Tools/Jim Beam Honda on the front row in qualifying, it looked like Penske Racing would give Andretti Green racing a run for their money when Sam Hornish pulled into victory lane.

Wheldon may have posted a sixth place finished sixth at Phoenix, but his luck was about to change. Heading into the third round at St. Petersburg, Wheldon was in second place in the point standings, six points shy of Sam Hornish. However, the next three races would see Wheldon tie Kenny Brack's record of three race consecutive wins, set in 1998.

St. Petersburg, the Indy Racing League's first non-oval event in its 10 year history, would be the site of another record. Wheldon crossed the finish line first followed by his three Andretti Green Racing teammates, Tony Kanaan, Dario Franchitti and Bryan Herta, marking the first time teammates had swept the top four finishing positions.

Wheldon took over the point standings lead followed by Tony Kanaan, while Hornish dropped two spots to third after being classified 15th. After winning two of the first three races, Wheldon found himself atop the championship standings, a position he would not relinquish.

Dan Wheldon celebrates his victory in the Indianapolis 500.
Photo by Michael C. Johnson.
Victories at Motegi and Indianapolis would raise Wheldon's record to four out of five. While four victories in five races doesn't seal the championship, it certainly put it out of reach of anyone not driving for Andretti Green or Marlboro Team Penske.

Wheldon and Kanaan would sit first and second in the championship through four more races at Texas, Richmond, Kansas and Nashville. At Nashville, Dario Franchitti won with Sam Hornish second. One week later, Franchitti and Hornish swapped those finishing positions at Milwaukee tying them for second in the championship.

With Franchitti and Hornish tied for second, Kanaan was listed as fourth in the championship standings after Milwaukee.

Mechanical failures at Kentucky for Kanaan and Franchitti put them third and fourth in the championship respectively, allowing Hornish sole position of second. Except for a 26th pace finish at Nashville, Wheldon had yet to finish outside of the top six. By the time Hornish took possession of second place, he was 90 points out of first. Wheldon would have to experience bad luck if Hornish was to gain any ground.

Victory lane: race winner Dan Wheldon celebrates.
Photo by Michael C. Johnson.
Wheldon's luck was all good as the seven race winless streak ended at Pikes Peak. Despite Hornish's strong second place finish, the points lead extended to 97.

One week later, it was Kanaan's turn to visit victory lane at the IRL's first permanent road circuit. Hornish knew he would have his work cut out for him on the road circuits and his 17th pace finish at Infineon Raceway all but sealed Wheldon's championship.

Kanaan's victory moved him into second place in the standings.

With three races remaining on the schedule, the series moved to Chicagoland Speedway where Wheldon earned his record setting sixth victory of the season. Although the championship was within his grasp, there would be no celebration until it was solidly in hand.

At Watkins Glen, Wheldon would only have to score points for starting the race to clinch the championship. With half the laps completed at Watkins Glen the race was official and Wheldon would be the 2005 IndyCar Series Champion.

2005 IRL champion Dan Wheldon celebrates.
Photo by Ron McQueeney - IRL.
Despite Scott Dixon ending a long winless streak at Watkins Glen, the spotlight was on Wheldon and his teammates as they celebrated on the front stretch. Franchitti, Kanaan and Herta smoked their tires as Wheldon ascended his rear wing to salute the crowd.

Tony Kanaan set several IRL records when he won the 2004 championship. Wheldon set a few of his own including six victories in one season. Wheldon's earnings set a record at $3,721,005 as did his points total of 628. Wheldon led in all but two of the 17 races in 2005, to set a new series record and Dario Franchitti started in the top ten in all but one race. In all but two races, Wheldon finished in the top ten.

All four Andretti Green Racing entries are expected to return for 2006 although there has been no official announcement. After winning Rookie of the Year honors in 2003, Wheldon returned in 2004 to finish second in the championship to teammate Tony Kanaan. As for 2006, Wheldon has picked his teammate Dario Franchitti to win the championship but rest assured the young Englishman will be challenging him all along the way.