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Can he do it? ICN roundable on DW's chances

| Oct 09, 2011

On October 16, reigning Indy 500 champion Dan Wheldon will take his car, start behind 33 other determined drivers, and attempt to drive his way to the front of the field. If he can win the GoDaddy Challenge at the IZOD INDYCAR World Championships at Las Vegas, he’ll split a $5 million prize with a fan. The stage is set, the objective is clear. One big question remains: can he do it?

That’s exactly what we asked our stable of INDYCAR Nation contributors and bloggers: Can Dan Wheldon win at Las Vegas? Let’s see what they had to say:

Paul Dalbey, MoreFrontWing.com:
If I had to pick two drivers on my all-time INDYCAR oval team, they would be Sam Hornish, Jr. and Dan Wheldon.  If there is anyone that can come from 34th on the starting grid to win next week in Las Vegas, Wheldon is as good of a bet as you can get.  That being said, even for Dan the odds are long.  Just the challenge of coming from so far back and getting through the field cleanly makes the odds seem longer than he will be able to overcome.

That said, it has been proven that a car can come from the back of the field to win.  At Chicagoland Speedway in 2008, we saw Helio Castroneves start dead last to claim victory.  Granted there were only 28 cars in that field rather than 34, but as memory serves, Castroneves was able to make up the deficit fairly quickly and was near the lead by about the halfway point.  A good car (no, make that a great car) and a lot of luck are required to even have a chance.

The Sam Schmidt Motorsports team has proven that it has quick cars, and the fact that Alex Tagliani put this car on the pole at Texas, the track that most resembles Las Vegas Motor Speedway, should be a good indication that Wheldon's car will have the speed to get through the field.  He will still need help though.  The more caution periods, and thus restarts, there are in the first half of the race, the better chance Wheldon will have to quickly make up ground and get to the front.  If the race goes green for an extended period of time, especially at the start of the race when Wheldon is most vulnerable to getting lapped, if will be nearly impossible for Wheldon to make up the ground he needs to pull off this improbable victory.  Of course, this doesn't start to factor in the odds of him getting caught up in someone else mistake or having to deal with a very crowded pit lane each and every time he leaves his pit stall.  With enough luck at just the right time though, Wheldon has as good of a chance of making this happen as anyone.

Chris Estrada, ICN:
If anybody can rise to the GoDaddy.com INDYCAR Challenge and walk away with $5 million for him and a lucky fan, it’s definitely Dan Wheldon. As we’ve seen over the years, he is an oval master and his Sam Schmidt Motorsports team knows a thing or two about speed.
However, this may be one challenge that’s simply too much for even Wheldon to overcome. Running at Kentucky last weekend should help Wheldon and SSM figure out what will be necessary to have a steady car over all of the stints at Las Vegas.
But with a 30+ car field, which is the biggest ever for an IZOD IndyCar Series event outside of Indianapolis, he’ll have to be very aggressive on starts and restarts. After those moments, Wheldon can’t afford to get bogged down in a pack of 8-10 cars for long. He must dispose of his rivals quickly. Then there’s his No. 77 crew, who will have to produce fast stops that gain their driver positions every time under green or yellow. 
Wheldon and SSM have their work cut out for them. Every element has to be perfect. I just don’t think that can happen in this scenario of having to start from the back of the field.

Zachary Houghton, ICN:
Can Dan pull it off? Although the task seems monumentally difficult, it’s not without hope. First, he’s going to have a good car with the team that won pole position at Indy this year. Second, Las Vegas is a track that should see liberal amounts of passing opportunities, so starting last in the field is not the kiss of death it would be at some other venues. Additionally, since he doesn’t have to worry about qualifying (since he’ll be starting dead last regardless), he and his team can focus solely on race setup. Finally, he’ll have a chance to gain positions in the pits—he’ll have a full-time, experienced pit crew, which not every Vegas entry can boast.

A $5 million challenge shouldn’t be easy, and it won’t be. Caution flags will need to come out at the right times, and a single incident in the pits can doom any effort, as we saw last race in Kentucky. But Wheldon has the oval success and experience to get it done, if anyone can. Don’t forget, in 2008, Helio Castroneves won at Chicagoland after starting at the back. It can happen.

Kyle Lavigne, ICN:
Can Dan Wheldon win the Godaddy $5 Million Challenge? Well, that depends on how you look at the question. Is it possible? Absolutely. Anyone familiar with motorsports know to “never say never” and that anything can, and will, happen. However, is it likely that Wheldon can win? Not very.
Wheldon s an enormously talented drivers and Sam Schmidt Motorsports builds very fast racecars. But, they’re going to be behind the eight ball from the get-go. They’ll have to start last in a grid that will include more than 30 cars and in a race that’s 300 miles long, rather than 500. That’s a very tall order for any team, regardless of the talent they have. Quite simply, they may not have the time to get up to the lead group, especially if we get the long green-flag runs we saw at Kentucky.
Plus, in starting at the back, they’ll need to build a lot of downforce into their setup. Though wings can be adjusted to take some off as they climb forward, it will be hard to trim the car during the race. The pit stops aren’t long enough to allow them to do that.
In short, Wheldon certainly has a chance to steal a win. But, to do so, he and Sam Schmidt Motorsports will have a big hill to climb.

Steph Wallcraft, MoreFrontWing.com:
Can Dan Wheldon win the GoDaddy $5 Million Challenge? Not a chance. That's not meant to undermine Dan's ability whatsoever -- he's a proven champion, and if there is anyone out there who could do it, it's him.

But in this case, the odds are just stacked too high against him. He'll need to stay out of trouble on the start and the double-file restarts, on a racetrack with a record number of cars, and on pit lane (where he'll have the pit stall that no one else wanted thanks to the DNQ at Kentucky). And as if all that weren't enough, he's starting from the back and will therefore need to pass 33 other cars -- that's more than at Indianapolis where drivers get 200 more miles, and no one has managed that in 100 years!
I wish Dan the best of luck, but he's more likely to be hit by falling airplane parts while walking down the street than he is to get through the race at Vegas without falling victim to someone else's mistake -- let alone succumbing to a mechanical issue or, heaven forbid, making a mistake of his own. Kudos to Randy Bernard for coming up with the idea, but there's no hope whatsoever that we'll see it through with a win from Dan Wheldon.

Bruce Martin, SI.com:
Of course Dan Wheldon is capable of winning the race despite starting last in a 34-car field but it will take an extraordinary set of circumstances for that to happen.
Wheldon dominated such 1.5-mile ovals as Homestead-Miami Speedway with three straight victories including 2005 for team owner Michael Andretti and back-to-back wins in 2006-2007 for Target/Chip Ganassi Racing. He was also a two-time winner at 1.5-mile ovals Chicagoland Speedway and Kansas Speedway as well as a two-time winner on the 1.5-mile oval at Twin Ring Motegi so the two-time Indianapolis 500 winner obviously has the driving skill to win at the 1.5-mile Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Combine that with the impressive speed the No. 77 machine at Sam Schmidt Motorsports has displayed this season along with a top-flight team and Wheldon has the tools necessary to hit the $5 Million GoDaddy Challenge jackpot that he will split with a fan.
Started last in the biggest IZOD IndyCar Series field since 35 cars started the 1997 Indianapolis 500, however, will be extremely difficult.
To get this done Wheldon will have to “Race like a Brazilian” – his buddy Tony Kanaan, who has become a master of starting near the back of the field on ovals and passing an enormous amount of cars at the start of the race and on restarts. If he can do that, Wheldon can advance to mid-pack in the first quarter of the race. After that, it will be a matter of systematically picking off cars one at a time as the competition near the front of the field includes some of the best drivers in the IZOD IndyCar Series.
It will also require a little “Las Vegas Luck” meaning fuel strategy and caution periods will have to play in his favor.  When Danica Patrick drove to her only IZOD IndyCar Series victory at Twin Ring Motegi in 2008 she didn’t have the fastest car in the field but the race circumstances played in her favor as she was able to stretch her final tank of fuel to the checkered flag. Dario Franchitti also conserved fuel to win both the race and the championship at Homestead in 2009 when he quickly realized he didn’t have the fastest car in the race.
So, yes, Wheldon can win at Las Vegas but if the race doesn’t play out to be a fuel mileage contest, expect to see a driver such as Will Power of Team Penske do all he can do to erase an 18-point deficit to Franchitti in the battle for the 2011 IZOD IndyCar Series title.

Kristin Slevin, ICN:
Really guys, what kind of a question is this? OF COURSE Dan Wheldon can win this race! Anybody who can come into the Greatest Spectacle in Racing after sitting on the couch for months and win the whole thing has my vote.

His season-long “vacation” might even give him the advantage this time. It’s the end of a long, brutal season and it has taken its toll on the rest of the field. Wheldon, however, is nice and warmed up from Kentucky and has got a pair of fresh legs under him. If anyone can come from the back of the field, it’s him. There’s no chance of exhaustion or apathy setting in. And the fact that Vegas is a 1.5 mile oval only improves his chance.

Dan has always thrived under the dramatic. And as a Public Relations major, I’m practically drooling over the sensation that would be if he won both the 500 and Vegas this season. A Dan Wheldon win would not only be a win for him, but also for the underdog Sam Schmidt Motorsports, IndyCar Series and, best of all, the fans. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is what we call a win-win-win-win. Sounds like Vegas to me!


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  17. 17 Sam Z. Ca 16 Oct
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