Alex Palou‘s securing of the 2023 NTT IndyCar Series title last Sunday (Sept. 3) at Portland International Raceway was a matter of when rather than if long before the series arrived in the Pacific Northwest. Palou drove a dominant race and wrapped his hands around the Astor Cup with what looked like relative ease.
The Spaniard’s second championship also snapped a 17-year-long streak for IndyCar, for it had been 17 consecutive seasons since a driver won the championship before the final race on the schedule. The last driver to do it, way back in 2005, was the late Dan Wheldon.
We’ve already examined Palou’s 2023 season; so now seems like a good time to examine the second-most-recent title to be decided before the season’s end.
Wheldon opened the season strong with a win at Homestead-Miami Speedway, leading 158 laps of 200 to start his campaign off in the best way possible. Sam Hornish Jr. and Tony Kanaan completed the first podium of 2005. This win would be the first of three in a row for Wheldon at the 1.5-mile oval.
The Briton’s second win of the year came just two races later on the streets of St. Petersburg ahead of Kanaan and Dario Franchitti. He then went on the win the next race at Motegi – his second in as many years in Japan – to irrefutably assert himself as a force to be reckoned with for the 2005 title.
A month later, Wheldon captured racing glory and etched his face on the Borg-Warner trophy by winning the 89th running of the Indianapolis 500. Many remember this race, however, because Danica Patrick became the first woman to lead the Indy 500 after shuffling to the lead on lap 56 before pitting one trip around the Brickyard later.
After starting sixth, Wheldon made his way to the lead with 30 laps before pitting during the penultimate caution of the day, brought out by Roger Yasukawa. Meanwhile, Patrick and Bryan Herta were determined to make it to the end of the race on fuel mileage – this necessitated that Patrick dial down her fuel mixture, slowly bringing her back into the sights of Wheldon, who took the lead on lap 186.
Following the final caution of the day, Patrick pounced on the final restart and the racing world held its breath as the No. 16 Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing driver darted around the Speedway with Wheldon in pursuit. The lead came back to the No. 26 with 7 to go and he held it to the checkered flag, which flew under caution after a crash on lap 199.
The first of two Indy 500 wins for the Briton was followed by a comparative slump in what had been, to that point, a dominant season.
Wheldon went winless for the next six races after winning four of the first five. Through those six races, he collected two second-place results at Kansas and Michigan. His only finish outside the top 10 during this span came at Nashville Superspeedway after a problem with the right-rear wheel of his No. 26 machine forced his retirement from what was otherwise a top-10 performance just before the race’s halfway mark.
Wheldon succinctly described the circumstances as “just a shame” when questioned by Dr Jerry Punch. Even with this DNF (21st in the final results from Nashville), Wheldon posted an average finish of 6.2 across his six-race winless streak.
Wheldon returned to form at Pikes Peak International Raceway – the final IndyCar race at the track to date – by winning his fifth race of the season. This win tied what was then Hornish’s record for the most wins in an IndyCar season.
The next week yielded only an 18th-place result at Sonoma, after one of the most retrospectively comical but certainly frustrating moments IndyCar has seen on pit lane.
Wheldon pitted under caution just over a quarter of the way through the race and motioned for a water bottle. Flying into frame from pit wall came a water bottle, which bounced off the sidepod of the car and onto the ground, forcing the crew to hold Wheldon in place while the bottle was retrieved. The driver angrily sped off without hydrating shortly after his path was clear.
Later in the race, a fuel line problem ended his day prematurely. Kanaan took the win, contrasting his teammate’s day.
Briscoe survived the melee, albeit with a concussion, two broken collarbones and a bruised lung among other contusions and aches. Two front-of-the-field regulars followed Wheldon to the checkered flag in the form of Helio Castroneves and Hornish.
Entering the penultimate round of the season for IndyCar’s first race at Watkins Glen since 1981, Wheldon carried a whopping 102-point advantage over Kanaan. Finishing last would offer Wheldon 12 points, leaving him out of Kanaan’s reach for the final race of the season at Auto Club Speedway.
As such, the 27-year-old Englishman was declared the 2005 IndyCar Series champion when the Watkins Glen Indy Grand Prix became official at its halfway mark. Wheldon finished sixth while Kanaan came in second. Scott Dixon shared the spotlight with the champion by taking his first win since 2003.
On the year, Wheldon compiled an average finish of fifth, along with six wins, 12 top fives and 15 top 10s.
For 2006, the newly-crowned champion signed with Chip Ganassi Racing and won his first outing in Target colors at Homestead. He also won the season finale at Chicagoland to take the title fight to the wire, tying Hornish with 475 points a piece, though Hornish won based on having more wins throughout the season.
Wheldon moved to Panther Racing for 2009 and 2010 but went winless in both seasons. He entered 2011 without a ride and turned his energy to finding a seat for the Indy 500, which he won in shocking fashion when JR Hildebrand crashed from the lead – in the car Wheldon had just vacated – in the final corner of the final lap. In perfect irony, Wheldon was running second at the time and stormed by his old ride to take his second victory at the greatest spectacle in racing.
The win was Wheldon’s 16th and last in IndyCar. Months later he entered the ill-fated IZOD IndyCar World Championship at Las Vegas Motor Speedway and was killed in a massive pileup early in the race. The event was abandoned and the day ended with a five-lap, three-wide salute to Wheldon after his passing was announced by IndyCar.
Wheldon left this life prematurely, leaving behind two sons, Sebastian and Oliver. Both his sons currently compete in go-karts, something Susie Wheldon says would have Dan “over the moon.”
On the statistical side of his legacy, Wheldon stamped his name on 16 IndyCar wins, two Indy 500s, and one championship season in 2005.
About the author
Alex is the IndyCar Editor at Frontstretch, having initially joined as an entry-level contributor in 2021. He also Co-founded The Asia Cable, a publication focused on the international affairs and politics of the Asia-Pacific region, in 2023. With previous experience in China, Japan and Poland, Alex is particularly passionate about the international realm of motorsport and the politics that make the wheels turn - literally - behind the scenes.
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