At 27, Dan Wheldon already had attained most of what he deemed important. He was an Indianapolis 500 winner, an Indy Racing League champion. He had it all and was gluttonously working on the extra helpings.
Three years later, Wheldon, 29, has returned to Indianapolis a changed man, not simply because of a change in employers (from Andretti Green Racing to Ganassi in 2006), two years of humbling on-track frustration (four wins the past two seasons) and an unrequited flirtation with NASCAR.
No longer trying to embody the smooth-talking rock star/racer, he jokes that his opinions must be cleared with his new bride and self-effacingly describes the expensive porcelain veneer job that now sheath his "English teeth.''
Already a winner this season, fast all month and starting second in Sunday's Indy 500, the St. Petersburg resident could join Helio Castroneves as just the second active driver with two Indianapolis victories.
How cathartic was it to get back in a race car after all the tumult last year?
I'd always had very good seasons. They might not always have turned out our way, but for the most part, very good ones. I didn't really enjoy last year, the end, as much because it wasn't working for us. It was good in the offseason to take a break. ... I got married, which is very good. You're not always going to have good seasons, but if things don't quite go your way, you want to make it right and move on your way as quick as possible.
Did you have a Dan makeover?
It's "New Dan for '08." I think a lot of good things are happening in my life.
Were you tough to be around when things weren't going well?
Racing is everything to me. When it's not going my way, I guess I don't enjoy life.
Does spending a month preparing for a race help a driver — you — and a team — Ganassi — that has won it before?
Any time that you can spend on track with the lack of testing we're allowed to do is a total benefit. With this month, what can happen is, you can confuse yourself. You just have to be very disciplined with your approach. You can't confuse yourself and if you're doubting a change, you can go back and try it again and get a clear, definitive answer. But if you start to confuse yourself and start to lead yourself down a path and kind of get lost, that can really hurt you. To some degree that happened to us last year. We started off the month so strongly and for whatever reason we just couldn't find that form again. We ended up confusing ourselves more and more and that was a very bad race car.
Bottom line: How does it look for you on Sunday?
I don't get too excited early on in the month because I've been around long enough now to know if you get too excited too quickly then it can really hamper you. Every time I've been to Indianapolis, this certainly is the most organized I've ever seen a race team for the month of May. Certainly, when we were at Kansas (which he won), when we were at Japan, even when we were in St. Pete, the team had shop-based people working on Indianapolis 500 programs. The team has definitely done a very, very good job of preparing for the race and I would say that has helped a lot.