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Wheldon stares down storms, on and off track

Dan Wheldon has done it all in IndyCar, but the move to more road and street races might have led his boss to look around.

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Dan Wheldon has done it all in IndyCar, but the move to more road and street races might have led his boss to look around.

Dan Wheldon just didn't understand all the fuss. This storm would pass. Everything would sort itself out.

Sitting Monday morning in his Old Northeast home, he could very well have been referring to the topical depression that apparently settled over his career at Ganassi Racing last week, when team owner Chip Ganassi admitted that he had pursued — and thought he had signed — 2004 Indy Racing League champion Tony Kanaan to replace Wheldon for next season.

But Wheldon, 30, was bemusedly chatting about a tropical depression that had become Tropical Storm Fay and the anxiety he was sensing.

"That's an Americanism," he responded to a joking query about whether he was shuttering his windows. "I think every American panics tons when something bad is happening."

Besides, he said, "I have hurricane-proof ones."

Wheldon's approach to the storm in the Florida Straits was much in keeping with his outlook on his future with Ganassi or elsewhere.

"Stay one step ahead," the 2005 IRL and Indianapolis 500 champion said.

Which means Wheldon's management is entertaining inquiries from other teams, though there figure to be few that could provide his salary and competitive environment.

Wheldon said he believes he left Andretti Green Racing, with which he captured his championship and nine of 15 career wins, on good enough terms to return. But the team has four drivers — Kanaan, marketing maven Danica Patrick, the team co-owner's son, Marco Andretti, and the series' top rookie, Hideki Mutoh. Team Penske seems comfortable at two full-time cars and newcomer Ryan Briscoe has two wins, as many as Wheldon. Newman/Haas/Lanigan is still gaining its footing after coming over from the defunct Champ Car series and has sponsorship challenges. Vision Racing, owned by league CEO Tony George, seemingly could afford him, but it has never won a race despite its gradual improvement.

"I don't think it will be a problem, me having another ride," Wheldon said. "It's just making sure you get the situation you want."

Wheldon conceded that Ganassi might be his best option, and he deemed his relationship with teammate Scott Dixon "one of the best working relationships I've ever had with a driver."

Wheldon, who starts 16th in today's race in Sonoma, Calif., added: "I like this team. I like being here. It's obviously a very competitive team right now."

Dixon, who has won 10 of his past 22 races and leads the standings this season, told ESPN.com that Wheldon is "still the same driver. He's just not getting everything lined up in a row that he needs to have go his way."

But Wheldon knows how things work at Ganassi. And he knows circumstances are unlikely to change even if he signs the contract he considered all but done a month ago.

"Chip is Chip," he said.

Ganassi's flirtation with Kanaan coincided with the IRL running a schedule of almost half street and road courses for 2009. Wheldon won the first nonoval race in league history (the 2005 Grand Prix of St. Petersburg) but has just three top fives and nine top 10s in 15 nonoval starts. Kanaan, a veteran of Champ Car (which was heavy on road and street races), has two wins but 11 top fives and 13 top 10s.

Ganassi told SpeedTV.com that Kanaan indicated "we're a go," only to re-sign with AGR.

"I had a pretty good idea (this was going on)," Wheldon said of the machinations involving his old friend and teammate. "In this business things don't stay quiet. … It has nothing to do with Tony. That's just down to your boss."

Ganassi drivers profess their respect for their boss because they say he doggedly attempts to improve the team, with the tacit understanding that could mean their departure from it.

"As long as you're getting the job done, then everything is good," said Scott Pruett, the Grand Am Series' all-time winner who has Ganassi's three-time champion team in first place again this season. "If you're not getting the job done, then he's going to look to see why. … And if you still don't get it done, then you'll probably be seeing the door on the way out."

Wheldon is safely inside. But it never hurts to have those hurricane-proof windows.

Brant James can be reached at brant@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8804.

Wheldon stares down storms, on and off track 08/23/08 [Last modified: Saturday, August 23, 2008 8:45pm]

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