Wheldon gives Target Chip Ganassi pre-Indy boost

KANSAS CITY, Kan. -- Heading into the Kansas Lottery Indy 300, the Indy Racing League's big three teams had each won a race in 2007. The question was which of those teams could seize the momentum for the month of May at Indianapolis by capturing its second win of the season.

That question was emphatically answered by Target Chip Ganassi Racing, which looked as if it was going to score its second 1-2 finish of the year before Scott Dixon was called in for a late-race penalty. But this week, nothing went wrong for Dan Wheldon, and the confident Englishman backed up his desire to dominate the 2007 season with a crushing performance at Kansas Speedway.

Wheldon won Sunday's race by almost half a lap over Andretti Green Racing's Dario Franchitti, with Team Penske's Helio Castroneves an even more distant third. Delayed Dixon was the last lead-lap runner.

After leading 177 of 200 laps at Kansas on the way to his second win of 2007, Wheldon takes a 27-point championship lead over Dixon to his beloved Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

"We're pretty happy," team owner Chip Ganassi said. "It's nice to go into Indy with some momentum, and we certainly had some momentum today. I'm pretty happy."

Since winning the IndyCar Series championship in 2005 and switching from AGR to Ganassi, Wheldon has lost at least four races he dominated through mistakes by himself or the team. After finishing second to Kanaan in Japan eight days ago, Wheldon could barely contain his irritation, but he was singing a different tune Sunday.

"Today was a pure team effort from everyone at Target Chip Ganassi Racing," Wheldon said after Ganassi cars led 193 of the 200 laps. "We had great, cars and I'm raring to go for the big one. Indy is a big goal for us, and we'll see how it goes.

"I don't know what happened to Scott in the pits, but it's a shame because everybody at Ganassi Racing wanted a 1-2."

Dixon ran a lap longer than Wheldon heading into his final pit stop of the race on Lap 156. But he must have run a lap too long because he ran dry and coasted into the pits, entering off the track in Turn 4 rather than the apron that starts in Turn 3.

Dixon left without comment, but TCGR managing director Mike Hull defended his driver.

"We were out of fuel," Hull said. "I don't know whether they wanted us to stop in the middle of the racetrack, because you could see that we had to coast into the pits."

By that point, the two Target cars had comfortably separated themselves from the rest of the field. AGR and Ganassi might have finished second and third on the track, but they were miles back.

"Overall, I'm pretty happy," said Franchitti after his second consecutive podium finish. "The pace of the Andretti Green cars has definitely improved, and we've got some momentum heading into Indy.

"The opposition, particularly Ganassi and Penske, are always raising the bar higher and higher," he added. "We've made some inroads to them, but we still have some way to go."

Indeed, Tony Kanaan claimed pole position at Kansas, but heading into the 300-mile contest, there were still questions about Andretti Green Racing's 1.5-mile speedway race setup. In the season opener at Homestead-Miami Speedway, three of AGR's four entries qualified in the top five, but all faded in the race and fifth place for Kanaan was the team's best race result.

Then at Motegi, Kanaan was able to run with Wheldon all day before emerging with a victory. Unfortunately for AGR, Kansas turned out more like Homestead than Motegi.

Kanaan was one of two drivers able to keep Wheldon within range, but his race was ruined in the first round of pit stops when teammate Danica Patrick's crew waved her out of her pit into Kanaan's path. He lost nine laps having his left front suspension replaced and finished 15th, just behind IndyCar debutante Milka Duno.

But TK's problems were minor compared with Marco Andretti's. It appears young Andretti is spooked by ovals at the moment, not a good thing in a series that runs 70 percent of its races on concrete-lined speedways.

Marco's free fall through the field was reminiscent of a phase Bryan Herta went through late in his CART career with Team Rahal when he appeared to lose confidence on ovals. Years later, Herta bounced back to win two IndyCar Series races with Andretti Green.

The NYSE Dallara-Honda must have been diabolical because Marco said he was happy to just get out and meet the media.

Asked what was wrong with his car, Andretti responded, "I don't know, man. I was so scared out there. I don't know what to say. It felt like my front and rear wings were upside-down and there was no grip. I've never been so scared in my life."

AGR wasn't the only team to have problems. Sam Hornish dropped like a stone from his front-row starting position and had his least competitive run in memory. Team Penske ended up treating the race like a 300-mile test session, throwing massive wholesale changes at the No. 6 car, allowing Hornish to finish one lap down in sixth. Castroneves finished third, but the Brazilian was never a factor.

Wheldon's hot start to 2007 makes him the obvious favorite heading into Indianapolis, though he tried to play down that notion.

"I hope so," he said. "You never know at Indy. It's a very tough race, and that's what makes it so great to win. We'll have to work hard and be very disciplined if we want to come out on top."

Franchitti, to an extent, agreed with Wheldon's take on Indy.

"Dan's not known for his false modesty," his former teammate said. "Indy is a different type of track than these 1.5-mile tracks. The regulations are different, and we can run as little downforce as we want.

"I'm hoping the five AGR cars are going to be strong for that race."

John Oreovicz covers open-wheel racing for National Speed Sport News and ESPN.com.