Standing 6-foot-4, Justin Wilson is a giant among race car drivers.
Teamed with Dale Coyne Racing, he's poised to be a giant-killer.
Wilson came this close to winning the 2009 IndyCar Series season-opening Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg (Fla.), dropping to a third-place finish on a late restart. He led 52 of the 100 laps on the way to securing the Coyne team's best-ever finish in the IndyCar Series.
It was a remarkable (and popular) result for a team that has long been known as a minnow going up against the big fish such as Team Penske, Target Chip Ganassi Racing and Andretti Green Racing. Yet there was nothing fluky about it. Wilson qualified the No. 19 Sonny's Bar-B-Q car on the outside of the front row and said he was surprised and disappointed not to deliver Coyne his first pole position.
In the race, he took the lead at the start and was headed for a historic upset until a couple of bad breaks relegated him to the bottom step of the podium. First, a full-course caution just before his first scheduled pit stop negated Wilson's 6-second lead and dropped him to seventh place. Hard driving, including a number of clean overtaking moves on a street circuit where naysayers claim passing is impossible, put JW back in position to reclaim the lead after his second and final stop for fuel and tires.
Wilson put on a remarkable display on his out lap on cold tires, holding off eventual winner Ryan Briscoe of Team Penske. But a messy conclusion to the race didn't work out in the Coyne team's favor. Although Wilson held off Briscoe on a Lap 78 restart, the Penske driver was able to power past on the next restart on Lap 86, as did second-place finisher Ryan Hunter-Reay. With two additional cautions before the end of the 100-lap contest, there wasn't enough green-flag racing left for Wilson to respond and he had to settle for third.
Not that he was complaining.
"Having led the most laps all race and been so strong and been so fast, I'm disappointed not to get the win," Wilson said. "But under the circumstances, I'm very pleased with third place for Dale Coyne Racing. I think we've been working hard all weekend. ... We've got some good people and pulled a team together. That's what allows you to compete, and that's the great thing about this series."
It's not the first time that Wilson has headed into a new season of racing as an underdog. In fact, there are few drivers out there who can top the 30-year-old Englishman's hard-luck story.
The best thing about Dale Coyne Racing is Dale's a racer. He understands it all, and that's a big asset in this kind of racing.
”-- Justin Wilson
After winning the FIA Formula 3000 championship, Wilson finally broke into Formula 1 in 2003 with the Minardi team, F1's equivalent of Dale Coyne Racing. After half a season, he was recruited to the Ford-owned Jaguar team, but it didn't turn out to be the big break many were expecting, and although Jaguar managing director Dave Pitchforth called Wilson "a good motivational force," the cash-strapped team dropped him in favor of ride buyer Christian Klien for the '04 season.
Unable to find an F1 ride at short notice, Wilson moved to America to race in the Champ Car World Series for Conquest Racing. He made enough of an impression to be signed for 2005 by RuSPORT Racing, a team many observers believed was on the way to becoming one of American open-wheel racing's top teams. Wilson won four races for RuSPORT, but team owner Carl Russo lost interest and folded the team at the end of 2007.
Still, after finishing in the top three in the Champ Car standings for three consecutive years, Wilson was a hot commodity, and Newman/Haas/Lanigan Racing signed him to replace outgoing champion Sebastien Bourdais. But Wilson's luck turned sour once again; instead of cruising to a likely Champ Car championship, the series folded and he and NHLR were forced into learning mode in the IndyCar Series.
No matter. In an unfamiliar car with almost zero testing, Wilson was fastest in the first road-racing practice session of the '08 IndyCar season, and he went on to take a convincing win in the Detroit Belle Isle Grand Prix. But once again, it was not enough to secure his future. Unable to land a sponsor, Wilson was dropped by NHLR at the end of the '08 campaign, and it was not until less than a month before the start of the 2009 season that he learned he would be employed by Coyne.
Some might say that going from Newman/Haas/Lanigan to Coyne is like moving from the penthouse to a studio efficiency. Yet Wilson took it in stride once again. And if the combination's performance at St. Petersburg is any indication, Wilson and Coyne will contend for a race win again this year -- on a road or street course.
"I feel like I'm proving that I deserve to be here," Wilson remarked. "It was a difficult offseason where I didn't know what was going to happen and I didn't know if I was going to be back in a car. It was very frustrating after the progress we've made over the years, finishing second in the championship in Champ Car two years in a row, then coming across and winning a race as a transition team, and I felt we were showing well.
"But it was just unfortunate circumstances that I was out of a drive. Now to get back in a car and prove to everyone that I can still do this, it means a lot. But it's one step at a time, and we'll take this small victory and just try and build from that."
Former IndyCar Series and Indianapolis 500 champion Dario Franchitti is one of Wilson's strongest advocates.
"When the Newman Haas guys had to let him go it was nothing to do with Justin, it was just a financial decision -- I think everybody knows that," Franchitti wrote in his driver column for SpeedTV.com. "I remember seeing him at the Rolex 24 in January walking around looking for a ride in a pretty dejected way. There was just nothing happening for him.
"I was starting to get a bit worried for him, but then he got the deal with Dale Coyne and I told him, 'You made the absolute most of it, mate.' That was definitely the best story of the [St. Petersburg] weekend and I expect more of the same from him. It was really cool to see that."
You have to give Coyne credit for hiring the absolute best possible driver available instead of settling for a ride buyer, something NHLR owners Carl Haas and Mike Lanigan appeared to be on the verge of doing before they decided against running a car for Milka Duno. In fact, Coyne has made some serious upgrades to his team for 2009, hiring respected engineer Bill Pappas, and if the suburban Chicago-based team manages to take on an experienced second driver, DCR could really spring some surprises this year.
"Obviously, we want to make the most of these first two [street course] races because we don't have the big budgets to develop our cars for the superspeedways and for the ovals," Wilson noted. "So this is where we've got our best chance to compete, where it's about mechanical grip. We've got a pretty standard car, and we'll just make it as nice as we can. That's what the guys have done a great job at.
"This is our opportunity, and, later in the year when we get to those ovals, we're going to be struggling to stay close on out-and-out performance. But we'll do what we can and keep working on that area as much as possible, as much as our budgets will allow throughout the year."
For the time being, Wilson can be satisfied with a job well done at St. Petersburg, and comfortable in the knowledge that the rest of the IndyCar paddock will have to view him and Coyne as serious contenders for victory this weekend at the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach. Wilson took pole position at this California race in 2008 in his only Champ Car start for Newman/Haas/Lanigan but dropped out early with an engine failure.
"Obviously, Dale is extremely happy and he had a big smile on his face," Wilson said. "He just said, 'Well done -- great job!' I think the whole team is very motivated and feeling pretty good right now.
"It's a long, hard road ahead," he added. "We've got lots to learn and a lot of things to work on, whereas a lot of the others teams are further ahead. It's just the way it is, but we'll keep our heads down, keep working on it and get faster. Hopefully, on the road courses, we can get close to the front, and we'll see where that takes us. The best thing about Dale Coyne Racing is Dale's a racer. He understands it all, and that's a big asset in this kind of racing."
John Oreovicz covers open-wheel racing for National Speed Sport News and ESPN.com.