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Wheldon the man to beat at Kansas

Based purely on form during the past four years, Dan Wheldon is the overwhelming favorite to win the Road Runner Turbo Indy 300 set for Sunday afternoon at Kansas Speedway.

But maybe it's not so simple. Sure, Wheldon hasn't finished worse than second at Kansas since 2005. (He followed up a pair of second-place finishes in 2005 and '06 with victories in 2007 and '08.) And a total of less than one-tenth of a second separates the 30-year-old Englishman from scoring an incredible four straight wins at the 1.5-mile speedway just west of downtown Kansas City.

However, Wheldon is with a new team for 2009 -- Panther Racing, which hasn't won an IndyCar Series race since June 2005. And new rules for suspension components designed to cut costs and create closer competition could make this year's Kansas event the most unpredictable IndyCar oval race in years.

Still, there is no denying that Wheldon tops the list of likely contenders for Sunday's 200-lap contest. Intermediate speedways are Wheldon's bread and butter, and Panther's most competitive races traditionally have come on 1.5-mile tracks. It could be an irresistible combination.

"Judging by the test we had at Kansas, I thought the Panther Racing car was strong," Wheldon said. "Realistically, Kansas and Indianapolis should be strong tracks for us. It's one of those races that I think for me, it suits my style, because I tend to run a pretty loose race car on the ovals. That's the only thing I can put it down to. A lot of people ask why I go good there, so I would assume that would be the case because that tends to be why I can run the high line pretty easily. I figure that would be a similar reason to Homestead, too.

"To win this race, I think primarily you need a very, very, very, fast race car, and I've always been blessed with them at Kansas. It's got to be incredibly fast in clean air. You've got to be able to run the high line and cross the transitions comfortably -- which, as the years go on, more and more people have trouble with. It seems like it's become more pronounced with the track going through some tough winters and stuff like that."

Although speed is obviously a major factor at the superfast oval, Wheldon recognizes that smarts count, too. He won last year's race by doing a better job conserving fuel than his then-teammate, Scott Dixon at Target Chip Ganassi Racing.

"Sometimes at Kansas, and it caught Scott out last year, you're going to have to save fuel," Wheldon said. "Certainly at the earlier part of the race if you want to open up your window for the end. Lastly, you definitely need good track position and good pit stops, because towards the end of the race, if you've got a stop and there are 20 to go, it's very difficult to pass. If somebody's got good tires on and they can run quick on the bottom, it's going to be really difficult to pass them. So you've gotta have good pit stops, which will give you good track position."

Although Wheldon is looking forward to tackling six consecutive oval races, part of what has him so jazzed up about his new relationship with Panther Racing is his improvement on street courses. He's coming off a fifth-place finish at Long Beach and ranks seventh in the IndyCar Series point standings. A strong run in the lead-up to the next road race on the IndyCar calendar (at Watkins Glen International in early July) could put Wheldon in position to make a championship run this summer.

Of course, he'll have to deal with a variety of oval tracks in that time span, ranging from the 0.75-mile bullring at Richmond International Raceway to the grandeur of Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

"I've definitely always performed real well on the ovals, and judging by how the car was at Kansas when we tested there, I think we'll go very well," Wheldon said. "You just have to have the ability to make sure you're good on all of them. Obviously if you're good at Kansas, it doesn't mean you're going to be good at Milwaukee. I believe the team struggled quite a lot at Richmond last year, and we're going to have to fix that.

"You've got to be good on all these different disciplines. Otherwise, you'll get swamped in the championship, particularly when you see how competitive it is."

Although much attention will focus on Wheldon and Panther, Sunday's contest will be important for the IndyCar Series' acknowledged big three teams as well.

After two races, Dario Franchitti leads the series standings for Ganassi Racing, and the Scotsman will make his first oval open-wheel start Sunday since he clinched his series championship in September 2007. His teammate Dixon needs to kick-start his championship defense after an uncharacteristically poor start to his season has left him 17th in the standings.

Meanwhile, Team Penske is adapting to Helio Castroneves' sudden return to the team after his acquittal on tax-evasion charges. Ryan Briscoe has demonstrated he will be strong on road or street courses, but the Australian will need to show more consistent form on ovals if he wants to be a championship contender. Will Power, who started on the pole and finished second at Long Beach in a third Penske entry, will not compete this weekend.

Then there is Andretti Green Racing, which somehow came out of Long Beach with three of its four cars in the top six after a disastrous performance that saw none of its drivers qualifying better than Tony Kanaan in 11th.

Those top teams could be handicapped by a new rule that requires teams to run a 122-inch wheelbase on 1.5-mile tracks. In the past, teams had up to a 4-inch leeway in terms of the wheelbase they used to set up their cars.

The new rule will cut down the number of spare parts a team needs to carry and could equalize competition on the big tracks even more than the already close standard that exists in the series.

"It won't affect the short tracks because everybody had to run the long suspension on the short tracks just to get the car to handle," IndyCar Series technical director Kevin Blanch predicted. "On the big tracks it will make a difference because it changes the relationship of the wheel to the side pod and changes the way the air flows over the car, so you have to wind-tunnel, shaker-rig and seven-post test all those suspensions in every possible configuration.

"A lot of people haven't used it for several years. So it's kind of a learning experience for everybody going back to try to figure out how to make that suspension work. It's going to be interesting to see what happens."

Another change for 2009 is the return of a race-day practice session.
Since early 2006, when novice driver Paul Dana was killed in the prerace warm-up at Homestead-Miami Speedway, IndyCar competitors haven't had the chance to run their cars in race trim after qualifying.

Some drivers, particularly Marco Andretti of Andretti Green Racing, were vocal about the need to restore the prerace warm-up.

"Having no warm-ups hurt me for the last couple of years," Andretti said. "We practice, qualify race, but you need everybody out there on race day under similar conditions. You would know where your race car is. It's especially important on ovals. Last year was better, but I've gone into races saying, 'I cannot drive this thing.' On ovals, there's such a thing as soldiering on to an extent. What's the point of being six laps down on a track? There is nothing you can do as a driver, so they say 'Park it.' The only thing worse than being six laps down is being six laps down and taking someone into the wall."

Aside from Power's absence, the IndyCar field will have a couple of other changes this weekend. Conquest Racing is taking the week off to save its equipment for the Indianapolis 500. And fans of female racers will have a bonanza because three will be in the Kansas field: Danica Patrick will be joined by Milka Duno, who returns to Dreyer & Reinbold Racing to run a partial schedule, and team owner/driver Sarah Fisher will make her first start of 2009 in the No. 67 Dollar General special.

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