National Guard Team Opens Season with Street Course Top Five; Overcomes Accident, Weather

SAO PAULO, Brazil - (March 14, 2010) – In what was a thrilling opener to the IZOD IndyCar Series season, National Guard Panther Racing and driver Dan Wheldon overcame a broken front wing during Sunday’s Sao Paulo Indy 300 to finish in fifth place. Wheldon had started all the way back in 18th-place and was able to bounce back from an accident, and unpredictable weather conditions, to capture the team’s first Top Five finish of the season.

The opening lap of the race was eventful, with two significant crashes in the first turn of the 11-turn, 2.6-mile street course. The accidents helped Wheldon immediately jump to within the Top Ten, and after the race was restarted Panther’s National Guard driver quickly moved up the field, passing Hideki Mutoh, Vitor Meira and Raphael Matos to reach the Top Five by Lap 15.

“That was a really good effort from the National Guard boys, and I think it goes to show that we work really hard as a group,” Wheldon said. “And the continuity around here has been really strong, and I’m sure it will continue. If we keep coming in the Top Five we’re going to break into Victory Lane.”

Simona De Silvestro elected not to pit during the first round of pit stops and Wheldon returned to the field in sixth, where he began to battle with Alex Tagliani for fifth position. As Wheldon attempted to move inside Tagliani at the end of the backstretch on Lap 28, he struck a large bump which caused him to lock his brakes and run into the rear of the No. 77 car. The accident also sent Tagliani into the back of Andretti Autosport driver Tony Kanaan, who spun into the runoff area.

“It’s really great for all of us at Panther Racing to start the season with a Top Five, but first I have to apologize for taking Tag (Alex Tagliani) and TK (Tony Kanaan) out of the race,” Wheldon said. “Tag had a bit of a bobble coming onto the straight and I got a really good run; he defended a little bit and I was going to look to the inside but decided to pull in just a touch and when I braked I hit a really big bump and it just lifted my front wheels off the ground. When that happens you can’t stop.”

Wheldon immediately claimed responsibility for the accident on the radio, and adamantly apologized to the crews of both drivers after the race.

After the incident, Panther fell back to 13th position as the team had to pit for a new front wing and a set of rain tires to combat the oncoming rain storm. The rain was significant enough that the race had to be red-flagged on Lap 37 because the accumulation of rainwater left the track unsafe. Immediately upon the re-start of the race, the National Guard team sent Wheldon back into the pits to change to slick tires. The risky call by Chief Engineer David Cripps and Race Strategist John Barnes turned out to be a good one, as Panther’s driver was able to move back into sixth position by Lap 43.

Wheldon advanced one more position after Team Penske driver Ryan Briscoe crashed into the tire barriers, and was able to hold off former teammates Scott Dixon and Dario Franchitti during the final six green-flag laps.

It was his second Top Five finish on a street course with Panther, equaling his effort at Long Beach in 2009.

“We were really strong today – the National Guard car was really nice to drive and I was able to dive down inside people,” Wheldon explained. “It was exciting, and it’s going to be an exciting IZOD IndyCar Series season.”

The race was won by Penske Racing pilot Will Power, who was joined on the podium by IZOD driver Ryan Hunter-Reay and former Panther driver Vitor Meira, who – like Power – was making his first IZOD IndyCar Series start following fractured vertebra suffered during competition last season.

The IZOD IndyCar Series will have a week off prior to traveling to Wheldon’s hometown for the Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, which will be broadcast live Sunday, March 28th at 3:30 p.m. (EST) on ABC, with additional coverage provided by IMS Radio Network and XM channel 145 and Sirius 211.