Meira getting most from underfunded Panther car

JOLIET, Ill. -- Maybe it was a good sign for the still-winless Vitor Meira -- playing the role of track bully.

Last week on the road course at Sonoma, Calif., the Panther Racing driver took advantage of some conservative late driving from Team Penske's Helio Castroneves and Ganassi Racing's Scott Dixon to grab a podium finish. While the championship contenders saw the need to avoid trouble and save points, Meira saw opportunity.

And he ruffled some feathers in the process.

"He just dove into me, like 'oh, I'm going to pass, or you're going to get out of the way, or we're going to crash,' " said Castroneves of the moment when Meira out-braked him into a turn and took his position. "It would have been a big accident."

Between that move, an outside pass of Dixon on the Infineon Raceway carousel turn and a move around Tony Kanaan, Meira turned a sixth-place run with three laps remaining into a third.

For a 58th consecutive IndyCar race it was a non-winning effort. But it was also another week where the 29-year-old Brazilian showed not only his mettle, but further solidified Panther's place alongside the big boys despite a financial disparity.

At Chicagoland Speedway, Meira qualified sixth for Sunday's Peak Antifreeze Indy 300 (ABC, 1:30 p.m. ET), continuing to keep his car up with the championship leaders.

He's fifth in points, highest among drivers not wearing the red and white of Penske and Ganassi, and could finish fourth if a number of things go his way at Chicagoland.

Don't be surprised if he makes it interesting. In 13 races this season, he has seven top-fives. In his last nine, he has only one finish worse than sixth, showing along the way the ability to stick his Dallara's nose in tight spots.

Meira fully credits Panther for that, both for the good cars and the way the team has completely embraced him.

"It allows me to do more things. I know I'm going to have their back, even if I make mistakes," Meira said. "They're still going to deal with me, even after mistakes. That makes a real difference."

It's an experience Meira has never enjoyed before in IndyCar. With Team Menard from 2002-03, he rarely had cars capable of top-five finishes. With Rahal Letterman Racing in 2004 and last season he had the cars but didn't have top billing, which was destined to happen with one teammate who won the Indianapolis 500 (Buddy Rice) and another who was the face of the entire circuit (Danica Patrick).

"Some people need different things at different times, at Rahal Letterman it was just natural to give attention to Danica and Buddy," Meira said. "That's what I'm having here at Panther, full attention, and that's what's making the difference."

The difference just hasn't let to Victory Lane -- yet. Meira, seven times a runner-up in races, swears the dubious honor of having the most IndyCar starts without a win doesn't bother him, but the questions are bound to continue. Can he finally bag one? Or does it even matter?

"You guys, the media, make much more out of it than he does," Panther Racing co-owner John Barnes said. "He got a little bit frustrated in the middle of the season, after Watkins Glen when we finished second. He got mad and I said, 'Look, when you lay your head down on the pillow every night after the race is over with, can you tell yourself that you did your best job?' He said yes, then I said 'you're your own gauge, man, not them.' "

By any gauge, Meira and Panther's season is all the more remarkable considering it almost never got out of the garage. Barnes and the team pulled together enough money to field the team just before the March season opener at Homestead-Miami (some of the cash coming through auctioning old equipment), and for most of the schedule the No. 4's bright orange sidepods remained blank, as primary sponsors had not yet emerged.

Sponsors have come on board in recent weeks, but it's safe to say Lincoln Tech is in a different income bracket than Marlboro and Target. In part due to those kinds of resources, Penske and Ganassi has dominated, but the feisty one-car Panther is still knocking on the door just behind them.

"We're not giving him the same equipment that Penske and Ganassi have, I don't think we have the same equipment maybe as Andretti Green," said Barnes, whose team's storied IRL history includes back-to-back titles with Sam Hornish Jr. in 2001-02. "But you look at our results, that tells me that our whole team has come together and is working very hard. We've had a great year.

"Look at what Vitor's got. You put him in the same cars, the same financial package these other guys have, they'd be behind him every race."

Maybe soon they'll be behind him for one race.

John Schwarb is a freelance journalist covering motorsports and a contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at johnschwarb@yahoo.com.