Defending champ Wheldon needs strong showing

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ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. (AP) – A year ago, Dan Wheldon came from a ninth-place start to win the Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg.

He’ll have to do a little bit better than that today.

The reigning IRL IndyCar Series champion struggled in qualifying Saturday, finishing 13th among the 19 drivers who took part in the time trials on the 1.8-mile, 14-turn temporary street circuit tucked between Tampa Bay and downtown St. Petersburg.

“I’m disappointed that we weren’t quicker, to be honest,” Wheldon said. “The Target car is really good on the long runs but I just couldn’t get it up to speed quickly enough in qualifying trim.”It’s unfortunate but we have a race to look forward to and anything can happen.”

Wheldon’s Target Chip Ganassi Racing teammate Scott Dixon fared considerably better, trailing only pole-winner Dario Franchitti in the IRL’s unique road course qualifying format, which has single-lap qualifying for all the drivers before having the six fastest go head-to-head in a 10-minute shootout.

Tony Kanaan, the 2004 series champion, will start third, followed by two-time IRL champion Sam Hornish Jr. and his Marlboro Team Penske teammate, Helio Castroneves – who finished second last week to Wheldon in a thrilling side-by-side finish – and Kanaan’s Andretti Green Racing teammate, Bryan Herta.

Wheldon’s poor qualifying effort was only a small setback for the much-improved Ganassi team, which also got a fifth-place finish from Dixon in the season-opening race at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

The once-elite team, which had fallen on hard times since Dixon won the 2003 championship, added Wheldon over the winter, made a series of key personnel changes and got a boost when Toyota pulled its engines – which the Ganassi team was using – from the series a year early, leaving everyone in the league with Honda power.

Confidence is high for everyone on the Ganassi team right now, and Wheldon didn’t seem too concerned about his poor qualifying effort.

“It should be even more a show than it was last year with all the cars being more even with everyone running with Honda,” he said. “We’ll all be a lot closer proximity. We just need to have a good start and work our way forward.”

Wheldon and Dixon have very quickly forged a strong bond and Dixon said he expects his new teammate to be a factor in Sunday’s 100-lap race.

“I know Dan wasn’t completely satisfied with qualifying, but I’m sure he’ll be up there in the mix when things count,” Dixon said. “I think you won’t see as much passing as last year because of the balance in power between the cars now. But this is street racing, so you never can predict the outcome.

“Poor Dan’s probably going to try something. Starting back where he is, he’ll try something weird to try to jump the field. That’s when the action really starts.”

Franchitti, fourth at Homestead, has been fast since his car came off the truck on Friday. He earned the third pole of his IRL career with a record-setting lap of 104.054 mph, breaking the record of 103.664 set last year by Herta.

“After last year’s race, anything is possible Sunday,” Franchitti said. “It’s a typical street course race. You’ve got to get through that first turn. Once we’re through that first turn, then we can get on with the rest of the race. Guys are going to be trying to make up positions there for sure.”

Rahal Letterman Racing drivers Buddy Rice and Danica Patrick, both withdrawn from the Homestead race after teammate Paul Dana sustained fatal injuries in a crash during the morning warmup, will start seventh and 14th, respectively in the race.

AP-ES-04-01-06 1700EST

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