- Associated Press - Monday, May 30, 2011

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) - Dan Wheldon is a two-time Indianapolis 500 winner. He’s also _ at least for the moment _ out of a job.

“I’m sure I’ll be changing diapers by tomorrow,” Wheldon said with a laugh after his stunning last-lap pass of rookie JR Hildebrand sent him to Victory Lane at the Brickyard.

Wheldon was smiling when he said it, but he wasn’t kidding.

The 500 is the only race he’s under contract for this season, and even the addition of a second Borg-Warner trophy to his collection doesn’t mean the phone is guaranteed to start ringing off the hook anytime soon.

He’s aware more than most how delicate the economy is these days. He tried to court new sponsors when his contract with Panther Racing wasn’t renewed over the winter. He thought he had a deal in place to join a new team in January, but it fell through at the last minute.

Rather than take a ride with a team he didn’t believe could be competitive on a weekly basis, the Englishman opted to stay at home with his wife and two young children.

“Do I sit and home and think, ‘It’d be great to be out there? Absolutely,’” Wheldon said. “But it’s all I can do.”

Even the title “two-time Indy winner” might not be enough to get Wheldon any more work this year, though his performance put an exclamation point on a month that saw upstart teams hang with the deep-pocketed big boys at Target Chip Ganassi Racing and Team Penske.

The top four finishers _ Wheldon, Hildebrand, Graham Rahal and Tony Kanaan _ all were competing in their first 500 with their respective teams, and their ability to thrive at the 2.5-mile oval showcased a much-needed uptick in parity.

Hildebrand actually replaced Wheldon at Panther and would have won if not for an ill-fated pass of Charlie Kimball on the final turn that sent Hildebrand into the wall.

Rahal came in a solid third driving for Service Central Chip Ganassi Racing, while Kanaan salvaged a tough day for KV Racing Technology-Lotus by finishing fourth after starting 22nd.

Kanaan, whose long partnership with Andretti Autosport ended last fall when primary sponsor 7-Eleven scaled back, viewed Wheldon’s win as a strike for talented drivers who are out of full-time rides due to factors other than on-track results.

“I’m surely happy for Dan,” Kanaan said. “He’s been through a lot. He got thrown out the window. A lot of people said that he wasn’t good enough.”

Not Wheldon. He never lost faith in himself even when the business of the series left him on the outside looking in.

“It’s just part and parcel of the economy,” he said. “I feel confident in my own ability to know that it’s not based on talent.”

Yet Wheldon also understands the series’ marquee event provides unemployed drivers such as himself a rare opportunity to get behind the wheel with a legitimate chance to compete. Though there are few sponsors out there with the resources for a full-year commitment, there are far more who want to see their logo splashed on a car during the 500.

That’s why he jumped at the chance to drive for owner Bryan Herta. And the lengthy run-up to the race gives new teams a chance to work out the kinks, something that can’t always be done during the relatively short practice windows before a regular race.

Wheldon didn’t get into Herta’s No. 98 Honda until a few weeks ago. By the time the green flag dropped, it felt as if he was part of a team.

“It’s not like we kind of just scraped this crew together,” Wheldon said. “There’s some quality individuals there, certainly some people that I think are the best I’ve worked with.”

Yet as of Monday morning, they’ll be his former co-workers. When he gets a full-time job is anybody’s guess. The series is going to a new car in 2012, and money could get even tighter.

Wheldon’s best path might be to find a sponsor and then find a team. It worked for Rahal, who found a full-time sponsor in Service Central before joining Ganassi this year in a move that could signify how drivers will find rides down the road.

“The biggest problem next year is people are going to have to buy cars, which is going to make (sponsored) drivers even more good looking,” Wheldon said.

When asked last week if he’s better looking than Rahal, Wheldon just laughed.

“Better looking than Graham? That’s for you to decide,” Wheldon said. “When he’s bringing in $6 million bucks, probably not. Six million to my zero? Probably not.”

Not even with a shiny new trophy to bring home to the kids.

Wheldon is OK if the phone doesn’t ring. He proved the doubters wrong on Sunday and re-established that he can drive with the best when he’s in the right car.

If it’s good enough for sponsors to come on board and help him get a ride, great. If not, he’ll go home. He hasn’t ruled out moving to another series, though his time off has helped him realize how much he loves IndyCar.

“I’ve been doing this 8-9 years, and you do take it for granted a little bit,” he said. “I don’t feel like (the down time) re-energized me, but it’s made me appreciate more. Now I’m in a situation where I feel like I’m having fun again, and that enjoyment has come back.”

Copyright © 2016 The Washington Times, LLC.

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