No one was more surprised by Dan Wheldon's comparatively poor 2007 season than Wheldon himself.
After dominating the IndyCar field on the way to the series championship in 2005, the Englishman switched from Andretti Green Racing to Target Ganassi Racing and almost collected a second title in '06, losing in a tiebreaker to Team Penske's Sam Hornish Jr.
Wheldon scored his now-traditional victory at Homestead-Miami Speedway to open the 2007 IndyCar campaign, but after a win at Kansas Speedway in late April, nothing seemed to go right, and he spent the last few races of the season in an unsuccessful attempt to secure the crown for Ganassi teammate Scott Dixon.
The defeat has Wheldon, 29, ready to rebound in 2008.
"I might sound a bit like a spoiled brat, but finishing fourth is the worse championship position I've ever had," he said. "So I'm very determined to get back out there and get up and running again.
Chip [Ganassi] and I are both pumped up."
Although he didn't post results that showed it during the second half of 2007, Wheldon continued to dominate IndyCar Series races on 1.5-mile and longer speedways. His need to improve on road courses has resulted in Chris Simmons replacing veteran Andy Brown as Wheldon's race engineer.
"Certainly, since I've been in the IndyCar Series at the Ganassi team, I've definitely struggled a little bit at road racing," Wheldon said. "Chris has been a driver before. That knowledge has really helped, and I think we've made some really big progress there, so that's encouraging. The team had me testing right up until Christmas, and fortunately, that gave us some time to really evaluate the stuff and see why we've made the improvement. They've given me a car now that I am much more comfortable with, and that has been a big part of it."
As usual, Wheldon's focus is on the Indianapolis 500, where he will try to repeat his success from 2005.
"To start the season, the Indianapolis 500 is my primary goal," Wheldon said. "I think we've seen the last three years, starting with myself in '05, Sam in '06 and Dario [Franchitti] in '07, if you can win that Indy 500, it really kind of propels you into that next part of the championship. And obviously, that's very important."
Asked what would be a more meaningful accomplishment this year -- winning another Indy or another championship -- Wheldon's response was immediate.
"I'm always a 500 boy," he said. "I love that race. If I was greedy, I'd love to take both. But if I had to choose, I'd definitely take the 500. The biggest race and the most enjoyable race for me, and I think it always will be this, no matter what series I do, is the Indianapolis 500. I love that race purely because you are in the car so much. It's an intense racetrack. You can change the car around -- it's not that fixed wing angle stuff -- and you can really drive the car. If you have a good feel for that, it can make a difference."
Without much prompting, Wheldon steered the conversation toward NASCAR. He has made no secret of his desire to try out America's biggest auto racing stage, and it must have been galling for him to watch team owner Ganassi offer to Franchittia a Sprint Cup seat he desperately wanted.
"At the end of the day, people have always tagged me as the next driver to go to NASCAR, and I have said that I would like to try that," Wheldon said. "I'm not going to deny that. But going into this season, I want as little distractions as possible, and I have totally cast that stuff aside.
I'm a firm believer in this saying: If it's meant to be, it's meant to be. Chip obviously thought Dario would be a better fit, and that's his prerogative as a team owner."
With his interest in NASCAR out in the open, Wheldon figures the best way to capture the attention of the stock car world is through another spectacular IndyCar season like he had in 2005 and '06. He is set to be a free agent at the end of the '08 campaign.
"I want to put myself in a real strong position by having a really strong season. It's always good to do that in a contract year because it puts a little bit of pressure on the boss. I'm going to put him in the position where he's going to have difficult decisions to make.
At the end of the day, people have always tagged me as the next driver to go to NASCAR, and I have said that I would like to try that. I'm not going to deny that.
-- Dan Wheldon
"That's not to say I'm not going to stay in IndyCars. But at the same time, you've got to do it under the right circumstances, and if
[NASCAR] becomes something that I really want to do, I've got to put myself in position where Chip can't say no. But right now, as for me, I'm just focused on the IndyCars. For me, this year is about eliminating distractions and winning the 500."
If Wheldon does decide to stick with open-wheelers a year from now, he could play a key role in rebuilding IndyCar racing's brand equity. He is impressed with the changes he has seen within the Indy Racing League in the two years since Terry Angstadt signed on as president of the IRL's commercial division.
"I do think the IndyCar Series has picked up some momentum," Wheldon said. "I think this is the first preseason where you really believe that there is some energy and some hunger amongst the PR and marketing staff. And that's kind of exciting for the drivers.
"We've been there in the past and heard the same thing over and over again. But it does seem to be different this year. If we can keep spicing things up and adding some sponsors here and there from a league perspective, I definitely think with the momentum, it could keep growing. Which in a tough economy would be an impressive feat."
On the personal side, Wheldon recently announced his engagement to his long-time personal assistant, Susie Behm. They will marry March 16 in what Wheldon is calling a "traditional modern" wedding.
"We'll have some European flair, but there will be some tradition involved," he said. "My personal life is fantastic, and I'm excited about that. Anything that I think could be a distraction, I've eliminated. Because of that, I'm solely set on trying to win that 500 first, and we'll worry about the rest later."
John Oreovicz covers open-wheel racing for National Speed Sport News and ESPN.com.