INDIANAPOLIS - Nobody ever accused Dan Wheldon of being too gracious a champion. His sense of timing was just a little out of whack.
While he was celebrated ever so briefly last year as the first Englishman to win the Indianapolis 500 since Graham Hill in 1966, Wheldon essentially got brushed aside while most everyone gushed over rookie Danica Patrick and her fourth-place finish.
Wheldon admitted that the additional fans and the publicity the Indy Racing League landed due to Danica-mania was a big plus, but he was still mildly steamed that his moment as the champion of the greatest race in the world was treated by many as an afterthought.
He had passed Patrick with six laps to go to win the Indy 500 in dramatic fashion, but it was Danica who was on the cover of most sports magazines.
Wheldon flashes that ornery kid-in-the-cookie-jar grin when asked now if he had the last laugh, since he went on to win six races in 2005 - an IndyCar Series record - and the season championship.
Wheldon's win at Indy and his dominance the rest of the way put him in an extremely good bargaining position, and he parlayed all of that success into a lucrative contract with a new team and another big-time sponsor. He jumped from Andretti Green Racing and his Jim Beam/Klein Tools car to Chip Ganassi Racing and the sponsorship of Target.
"I consider it a blessing that I've been able to work with two such prominent racing teams," Wheldon said.
"It's an opportunity few drivers get. You give yourself the best chance to win if you are surrounded by talented people, and I have been."
Leaving Andretti Green while he was the series champion and the reigning Indy 500 winner was awkward, but not a bitter jump.
"It was hard and it wasn't hard, because of the circumstances," Wheldon said. "I left when things were going very well, and we still get along well. I just took the opportunity to face another challenge with a new team."
Ganassi said he pursued Wheldon because he sees a fire raging inside the Brit, who will be 28 next month, and it is a fire that Ganassi wants to stoke.
"I think Dan has an incredible will to win," Ganassi said, "and that kind of thing is contagious. You like to see that spread throughout the garage. He certainly brings a lot of talent as a driver, but there is more to him than that. He has incredible drive and desire to be successful."
Wheldon, who made his IndyCar Series debut with Panther Racing in 2002, did not secure his first victory until 2004 when he won at Motegi in his second season with Andretti Green. When he streaked home first at Homestead to open the 2006 season, it was the 10th IndyCar Series win of his career, and emphasized Wheldon's insistence that there would be no resting on his laurels.
"Don't get me wrong - the memories of all that from last year with the success at Indy, the six races we won and the series championship - those are all great," Wheldon said, "and I certainly look back to them fondly. But for me everything started over when we went to Homestead. The first time I got in the car this season, I no longer considered myself the champion. I am just competing to be the champion."
But Wheldon, who will start third in Sunday's race, on the outside of the front row, said there is a definite residual benefit to being the defending champ of the Indy 500.
"Winning here, it gives you great confidence as a racing driver, and on a personal note, it is an incredibly big achievement," Wheldon said. "I think the biggest thing it did for me was it gave me a lot of self-satisfaction. As a kid you have goals and you have dreams and things you want to achieve by a certain age in your life. But not all the time do you get to achieve that, and I accomplished one of my biggest goals by winning the Indy 500."
Wheldon wants to become a repeat champion of the Indy 500, and has been outspoken about his obsession with overtaking Marlboro Team Penske's Sam Hornish Jr., who has been the fastest most of the month and sits on the pole for Sunday's race, and Hornish's Penske teammate Helio Castroneves, the most-recent back-to-back winner at Indy.
"This is a race I'm extremely passionate about, and I've been very vocal in making statements about the race," Wheldon said. "I was interested as to how I would be coming back as a defending champion, from a motivational standpoint.
"But having been a winner in 2005, feeling and seeing what it's done for me, it makes you more determined to win. I'm going to do everything in my possible power to make that happen."
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