Wheldon was '03 Rookie of the Year

A year ago, Dan Wheldon's claim to fame was simple -- he was the guy replacing Michael Andretti once the racing legend retired after the 2003 Indy 500.

After all, Wheldon had made just two IndyCar starts prior to the 2003 season, finishing 10th at Chicagoland and 15th in the season finale at Texas.

But Wheldon made an immediate splash in his '03 debut, finishing seventh in Japan while filling in for the injured Dario Franchitti. Wheldon also qualified (fifth) and ran well at Indy before spinning out and eventually suffering engine problems.

After several other first-half hiccups, Wheldon finished eighth or better in seven of the final eight races -- including a season-best third-place finish in the season finale at Texas -- ultimately finishing 11th in points and winning the Rookie of the Year award despite not competing in the season's first two events.

Now, Wheldon enters 2004 as a key member of team owner Michael Andretti's four-car stable. And after splashes of success in '03, expectations will surely be higher for the 25-year-old Englishman.

"It's going to be good from the fact that this is the first time I've been with the same team consecutive years," said Wheldon. "So I think that's going to play into my hands a little bit and certainly help."

Wheldon, who has also competed in the Toyota Atlantic, Indy Lights, F2000, Formula Ford and Formula Vauxhall series, got off to a fast start this year, leading the opening day of testing at Homestead-Miami Speedway -- site of the IndyCar season opener later this month -- last week with a lap of 217.820 mph.

In addition to Wheldon, Franchitti returns to Andretti Green Racing for 2004, as does '03 title contender Tony Kanaan and Bryan Herta, who ran 11 races for the team last season. And while running a four-car team can drive costs up faster than a nearly caution-free race at Fontana, the benefits are obvious -- the ability to share information among teammates.

"I think right now, we are all very enthusiastic and we have a lot of optimism for the advantages we see in a four-car team, especially with the testing restrictions from the IRL," said Herta. "We should be able to gather a lot of data. ... I do think that if anybody can handle it, the experience last year, they ran three and a half cars last year. It wasn't too much of a stretch for them to do this."

Herta and Kanaan each found victory lane last year while some might argue that Franchitti -- who did collect two top-10s in his three starts -- has the most talent of anyone on the team. And while Wheldon likely did far more learning than teaching last season, returning with a year of experience could be a major boon to the Andretti Green outfit.

"I think Dan is a very good driver. Everybody gets better in their second year," said Kanaan. "I am expecting him to be very fast and a lot more mature, and maybe be there playing for the championship with us."

Any and all of Andretti's drivers could be considered legitimate players in the IndyCar championship race -- or at least contenders for a top-five finish, assuming the team's Honda engines can match Toyota's output -- not to mention the improved Chevy powerplant from the latter stages of last season. And that could be a tall order, as six of the top eight drivers in the final IndyCar standings drove cars powered by Toyota engines (Kanaan was fourth with a Honda engine while Sam Hornish Jr. was fifth with a Chevy). The Japanese auto manufacturers have a storied rivalry, so don't expect Honda to sit back while Toyota once again dominates the series.

"Honda are certainly going to be pushing really hard to turn over Toyota's championship win," Wheldon said on his Web site. "There's a huge rivalry between Honda and Toyota. To be honest, I didn't really understand how big it was until I raced in Motegi in Japan. We certainly feel that Honda can fight back, and we have no doubt they'll be very strong this year, as will the team."

Even with the relative strength of the Andretti stable, the likes of Roger Penske's two-driver effort of Helio Castroneves and Hornish Jr., Panther Racing's Tomas Scheckter, Kelley Racing's Scott Sharp -- and, of course, Chip Ganassi's 2003 IndyCar champ Scott Dixon -- could once again make it crowded at the top of the IRL standings.

"I think it's going to be a tough season. There's going to be a ton of people that can compete strongly week in and week out," said Wheldon. "You'll see as many as 10 people that could possibly win any one of the particular races. I don't think I'm exaggerating saying that.

"I know it's going to, like I said, be tough. But with the team, with the three teammates that I've got, I think we are going to feature very strongly."

As for Wheldon's own prospects? Well, he's not exactly planning to suffer through a sophomore slump.

When asked whether he could realistically compete for the IndyCar championship this season, Wheldon replied, "Yeah, I think so."

"Last year was only the team's first season in the IRL, and that this year is going to my first full season as well," Wheldon said on his Web site. "I think everything's in place to go well. We've looked really strong in testing and I'm looking forward to it."

Jonathan Baum is an RPM editor at ESPN.com.