2009 Panther Racing Season Recap
Panther Racing entered the 2009 IndyCar Series season with a renewed sense of purpose and a familiar face in the cockpit of the No. 4 National Guard entry. Dan Wheldon announced his return to Panther Racing in late 2008; he made his first IndyCar start with the team in 2002. Just prior to the final IndyCar event of 2008, Panther announced that one of its own – former Indy 500 and IndyCar champion Dan Wheldon – would be returning to drive for the team. The National Guard returned as the primary sponsor of the No. 4 car for 2009, and with the continued relationship came participation in the National Guard Youth ChalleNGe program, of which Wheldon became a National Spokesperson.
With the continued support of the National Guard and Wheldon behind the wheel, the PantherPanther Pack started the 2009 season with a strong showing in the season-opener in St. Petersburg. A second-place finish seemed to be in the cards for the No. 4 before an accident relegated the team to a 14th-place finish. The team carried their momentum to the next two events, finishing 5th at the Long Beach Grand Prix and 10th at Kansas Speedway.
Any former champion of the Indianapolis 500 naturally returns to Indianapolis Motor Speedway expecting a strong performance, and Wheldon fulfilled, and possibly surpassed, his own expectations with his run in the 93rd Indianapolis 500.
The No. 4 National Guard entry, sporting a full ACU (camouflage) paint scheme, started 18th but was quick to make a spectacular charge through the field, aided by a stellar performance from the pit crew. Wheldon picked up sixteen spots during the race and finished in second place behind race winner Helio Castroneves.
“Honestly, the execution of everything by the Panther team was spot on, and I’m not sure there is too much we could have done better. Not many times in my IndyCar career have I left the track and felt we executed everything perfectly, but today was one of those days…I’m very encouraged by what the Panther Racing team along with the National Guard have done,” Wheldon said at the conclusion of the race.
Wheldon’s finish in the Greatest Spectacle in Racing marked the second consecutive year that Panther Racing has finished as the runner-up; Vitor Meira finished second to Scott Dixon in the 2008 Indianapolis 500.
Scott Sharp, a full-time competitor in the American LeMans Series and former IndyCar Series driver, joined Panther Racing as a teammate to Wheldon for the Indianapolis 500. Sharp started 20th in the No. 16 Tequila Patrón entry, two positions behind Wheldon, and finished 14th.
Wheldon’s runner-up finish in the Indy 500 was the first in a string of six consecutive Top Ten finishes for the Panther team, including 10th place finishes at Milwaukee, Richmond and Watkins Glen as well as a 7th seventh place finish in Texas and a 4th fourth place run at Iowa.
In July, Wheldon returned to Indianapolis Motor Speedway for an IndyCar two-seater ride with National Guard teammate and NASCAR Sprint Cup driver Dale Earnhardt Jr. Inclement weather prevented the two racing stars from riding in the two-seater as planned, but the event provided the National Guard with a great opportunity to bring two of its drivers together at the Brickyard.
Despite a series of strong runs, the National Guard team encountered its fair share of bad luck. A broken drive shaft at Chicago, an ill-timed yellow flag at Motegi, and a pit lane accident at Homestead-Miami were sprinkled in amongst Dan Wheldon’s first full season with Panther Racing. The team and driver remained encouraged despite the misfortune, as the No. 4 car was running inside the Top Five competitors at each event.
At the conclusion of the season, Wheldon and the No. 4 National Guard team found themselves in tenth place in the overall points standings, with three Top Five and twelve Top Ten finishes. Both driver and sponsor are returning for the 2010 IZOD IndyCar Series season, and everyone involved is hopeful that their second season together will be even more successful than the first.