Wheldon Captures First Panther Top Five on Streets of Long Beach
National Guard Panther Racing Driver Climbs from 14th to Fifth Place Finish
LONG BEACH, California (April 19, 2009) - Dan Wheldon earned his first Top Five finish with Panther Racing Sunday at the Grand Prix of Long Beach, where the National Guard driver made a long climb from his 14th-place qualification spot and into a fifth place finish. The result, his first Top Five of the season, catapults the team into seventh place in the IndyCar Series standings, just 35 points out of the championship lead.
During his accent to the front of the grid, Wheldon was able to avert two incidents that nearly cost the team its finish. The first, on Lap 24, saw Turn 11 of the street course turn into a parking lot, as Wheldon was the last on the scene of a pileup that included Mario Moraes, Justin Wilson, Darren Manning and Hideki Mutoh. His National Guard car was undamaged in the incident, and after some assistance from the Delphi Safety Team, the team was fortunate enough to come away with no damage or lost laps. He returned to the field in 12th position after a restart on Lap 28.
Wheldon climbed to ninth prior to a caution on Lap 39 for contact involving Ed Carpenter and the team elected not to make a pit stop during the cleanup. It was the team's decision to pit on Lap 51, just two laps prior to another full-course caution, that put a Top Five finish within sight. Technical Director David Cripps was repeating to his driver over the radio that he must conserve fuel to make it to the checkered flag, but Moraes brought out the event's final yellow flag, under which Scott Dixon and Ryan Briscoe had contact, that allowed the team to race until the end.
With under five laps remaining, one final incident was averted when Andretti Green Racing driver Marco Andretti foolishly attempted to pass the No. 4 car on the inside of Turn 11, making slight contact with Wheldon's right-rear wheel. There was no apparent damage to the National Guard machine, and the former Indianapolis 500 winner was able to pull away from Andretti by over a second for his 55th career Top Five finish.
The result was Panther's first Top Five finish since Kentucky Speedway last season, and was Wheldon's best finish on a street course since a podium finish at Belle Isle in 2007.
The IndyCar Series will travel to Kansas Speedway next weekend for the Road Runner Turbo Indy 300, which will be held on Sunday, April 26th and broadcast live on Versus, the IMS Radio Network, www.indycar.com, and XM Sirius Channel 211.
Wheldon is the two-time defending champion of the race, and will look to tie an IndyCar Series record shared by himself (Homestead-Miami Speedway) and former teammate Scott Dixon (Watkins Glen International Raceway) for consecutive victories at the same racetrack. Panther has registered three podium finishes of its own at Kansas, most recently in 2006 when the team finished third. Sam Hornish Jr. collected runner-up finishes at the track in 2001 and 2002, both seasons in which he collected league championships for Panther.
Wheldon and his National Guard Panther Racing conducted a one-day test at Kansas last week, and the team was very happy with the balance of its racecar, and the speeds it was able to post at the 1.5-mile oval. Practice for the event begins next Saturday.
"So far the Panther team has done a fantastic job calling the races, and certainly it was a different race; there wasn't a lot of passing out there. Once I got off the black tires, which I really struggled with rotating the car and getting good power down, it really came alive. Once the track rubbered-in that helped us as well. But the National Guard Panther Racing team did a really good job, I thought we were pretty competitive all weekend. Everybody worked hard and did a good job in terms of the pit stops, and it was a tough race and a race of attrition, but we made it to a Top Five. It was important for us to score points going into Kansas, because that's a race I'm very confident about, but the IndyCar Series is so competitive now that you can't count your points too early. "
John Barnes, Panther Racing CEO and Managing Partner:
"Our goal for the weekend was to get a Top Five in Long Beach and then win next weekend in Kansas. We're excited about going to Kansas Speedway next weekend and then Indianapolis after that. We really enjoyed racing in Long Beach, the crowd was incredible, the atmosphere was incredible and we really take our hats off to the folks with the Long Beach Grand Prix for making this such a great event for the IndyCar Series."