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Wheldon's domination puts competitors on notice

HOMESTEAD, Fla. -- For 19 of the 20 drivers in the IndyCar Series, the XM Satellite Radio 300 at Homestead-Miami Speedway was a pretty demoralizing way to spend a Saturday night. But for Dan Wheldon, things couldn't have gone any better.

Wheldon dominated the 300-mile contest, leading 179 of 200 laps to win by nearly seven seconds over his Target Ganassi Racing teammate, Scott Dixon. That's an eternity in a series that had to resort to timing in increments of 1/10,000 of a second because the action is normally so close.

And that massive margin of victory doesn't even begin to measure the magnitude of Wheldon's mastery. Sam Hornish Jr., who beat Wheldon to the 2006 IndyCar Series championship, was a massive 17 seconds behind in third place when the checkered flag mercifully flew.

Then it was time for Wheldon to display the slick charisma and salesmanship that polarizes fans and media worldwide about his character. Confident yet humble, the 27-year-old Englishman hit all his assigned talking points in postrace interviews.

"The win looked dominant, but any time you have Dixon and Hornish around, you know it's going to be tough," he said. "I'll have to put it down to the engineering staff and Andy Brown, who has worked very hard for me, as has the team as a whole. Now that I've been with the team for a year, they've worked very hard to suit my style and they did today."

Reared in Formula One, Brown showed his knack for engineering cars for high-speed ovals more than a decade ago with PacWest Racing in the Champ Car series. While with Panther Racing, he masterminded two of Hornish's three wins at Homestead, and he is now 2-for-2 with Ganassi and Wheldon at the 1.5-mile Florida oval.

A year ago, Brown revealed his secret for success at Homestead, and it sounds as if the Indy Racing League's move to increase the rear wing angle -- adding downforce -- for 2007 played right into the Ganassi engineering chief's hands.

"The history of the IRL has always been dictated by the way the rules put a lot of downforce in the cars," he said. "That's what makes for such great racing. The minimum downforce that the IRL specifies is more than enough to get around the track, but at Homestead, that wasn't the case. The old track in particular was very flat with not much banking and whilst the minimum downforce levels were great for qualifying, we always felt there was no way you could race like that.

"People would kind of put their hands on their mouths and laugh at us when they saw our wing angles and our wickers, but tires got hot, the track gets hot and we just sort of drove away from everybody."

Immediately after taking the flag, Wheldon told his crew on the radio that the Homestead win was a great first step toward a second IndyCar Series championship. But by the time he reached Victory Lane, his tune had changed.

"I'm all about the Indianapolis 500, and this win will give us confidence to go after another win at Indy," he said.

Meanwhile, Wheldon's closest title rivals were left to gasp and regroup. Homestead was only one race of 17, but the Ganassi team still sent out a strong message.

"I wasn't having a good time out there. We've found the speed, now we just have to make it last. We took a big risk and to be able to catch those guys in the future, that's the way it's going to have to be. I definitely know what not to do next time in the setup."
-- Tony Kanaan

"I could stay with Dan early on, but as soon he got that gap, I couldn't quite get back the time," said Hornish, a three-time series champion. "It's unfortunate for the Team Penske crew, but I said we'd be happy if we came out of here with a top-three … and we did that. We'll move on to our next race and see what we can do.

"Dan's performance reminded me of a few years ago when I was able to put a lap on the field here at Homestead," Hornish added. "That was a great feeling, but we have some work to do to catch up right now."

Andretti Green Racing looked strong in qualifying, with Dario Franchitti, Tony Kanaan and Marco Andretti starting the race 3-4-5.

But that trio faded in the race; Marco pulled out because his car was handling so badly, and Kanaan and Franchitti could only manage fifth and seventh place in the end, Kanaan as the last unlapped driver. In fact, for a couple of midrace stints, Danica Patrick pulled ahead of her veteran teammates before crashing at the pit entry.

"I wasn't having a good time out there," Kanaan groused. "We've found the speed, now we just have to make it last. We took a big risk and to be able to catch those guys in the future, that's the way it's going to have to be. I definitely know what not to do next time in the setup."

Heading to St. Petersburg this weekend for the first IndyCar Series street event of the season, Wheldon's championship competition is hoping that the Englishman doesn't find the kind of form in road racing trim that he has shown so often over the last couple of years on ovals. In truth, road racing has been the only weak link in Wheldon's repertoire.

"I think it's still difficult to judge, because we've only had a few days testing and one race," Wheldon said. "It seems very competitive and I wouldn't like to predict who will be quickest.

"What I can say is that I'm happy with the way my car has performed in testing, and in particular, I'm much happier on road courses now that I'm in a Dallara. As you say in America, it's going to be a barn burner of a season."

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