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ANDRETTI GREEN RACING Wheldon can't stop smiling after success



Published: Fri, June 3, 2005 @ 12:00 a.m.



His older teammates jokingly call him a trophy hog and are eager to beat him.

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) -- On the powerful Andretti Green Racing team, Dan Wheldon is the baby, by far the youngest of four racing team members.

Some kid.

The 26-year-old Englishman, in only his third year in the Indy Racing League's IndyCar Series, is the hottest thing in open-wheel racing with victories in four of five races this season. He'll go to Texas Motor Speedway for the June 11 race with a lead of 72 points over teammate Tony Kanaan.

More important to Wheldon, he'll also go as the reigning champion of the Indianapolis 500.

He was somewhat overshadowed at Indy by both Danica Patrick, who set a new standard for women at the big event by leading the race and finishing fourth, and even by his own team owner, Michael Andretti, whose family's Indy jinx finally ended.

None of it bothers Wheldon, who revels in the fact that he won the race he has coveted since first reading about it in a magazine as a teenager.

All smiles

On Monday morning, Wheldon smiled through nearly two hours of pictures with his winning car and the winner's Borg-Warner Trophy, hugging team co-owners Andretti, Kim Green and Kevin Savoree and every one of his crewmen as they walked up for individual or group photos.

He smiled widely and wore the hat of every sponsor named on his Honda-powered Dallara and gladly signed autographs and posed for yet more pictures with the handful of fans who showed up at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Asked to put this victory into perspective, Wheldon's smile widened even more.

"It's big," he said. "It's amazing. I crossed these yard of bricks yesterday. Normally I'll scream and shout after winning a race, but I was completely quiet just because of the magnitude of the event, how difficult it is to win.

"There's so many things that can go right or wrong during the month of May. When it all finally comes together and you actually win it, it took every possible emotion in my body to stop me just crying for about the first hour after the race."

Breaking the jinx

Making it even sweeter, Wheldon certainly has heard the stories about the Andretti family at Indy.

Mario, Michael's father, won the big race in 1969, then suffered through 25 years of frustration without tasting the winner's milk for a second time.

Michael came here 14 times, nearly won it a half-dozen of those years, led more laps than any other nonwinner and also came up short last May in his first full season as a team owner.

Now Wheldon has given the owner a huge gift.

"You know, I just felt that one day this place would repay me with some happy moments, and it has," Michael Andretti said. "Hopefully, there are many more to come."

And Andretti insists it is no surprise that it's Wheldon and not one of his more veteran drivers -- Kanaan, Dario Franchitti or Bryan Herta -- who finally gave him the chance to enjoy Victory Lane at Indy.

"What's impressed me most with Dan is, first, he was always quick and just never put a wheel wrong," Andretti said. "Number two, when he had a weak area, he would work it out and fix it. That shows me he's smart and I'm also very impressed with the way he races: He just knows how to get to the front and how to win the races."

His teammates, all of whom finished in the top eight at Indy, came to Victory Lane to congratulate him.

But they won't let him forget he's the junior member of the group -- and usually the butt of their practical jokes, such as getting pie in the face from Kanaan on Monday night after receiving the Indy winner's check of more than $1.5 million.

Man to beat

"He's definitely got the three other teammates he's got pretty riled up to go out and beat him in Texas because he's starting to get to be a bit of a trophy hog," joked Herta, who finished third on Sunday. "We need to balance it out."

Wheldon joined the Andretti Green team after the start of the 2003 season, subbing for the injured Franchitti for two races before replacing Andretti, who retired from the cockpit after failing to win at Indy that year.

Now, he has become the man to beat at just about every race.

"We won't do anything different," Wheldon said. "We've been the same [team] since 2003.

"I think my experience level has gotten better and better and you're just able to read situations more. Coming back [to a track] for a second time, that's easier. But when you come back for a third and a fourth time, you just have a much better idea, and it just makes a big difference."

Does that mean Wheldon plans to win here again next May?

"I should hope so," he said, grinning. "I've wanted this race so bad. Now that I've won it once, I'm going to come back here more relaxed -- and I can hardly wait."




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