WEST ALLIS, Wis. (AP) – It all looked so easy for Dan Wheldon at the start of the 2005 season.

The third-year Indy Racing League driver opened with a victory at Homestead, finished sixth at Phoenix, then reeled off three more victories, completing that impressive run with a win in the Indianapolis 500.

The Indy victory was the culmination of a nearly lifelong dream for the 27-year-old Englishman, and it might seem like he’s resting on his laurels after such a major accomplishment.

But it isn’t as if the wheels have completely fallen off for Wheldon since then. He followed the Indy win with finishes of sixth, fifth and second before a suspension failure last week at Nashville relegated the Englishman to a 21st-place finish.

What failing to win in four straight races after his incredible start has done, though, is allow other drivers to get back into contention for an IndyCar Series championship that once appeared to be a Wheldon runaway.

Heading into Sunday’s A.J. Foyt 225 at the Milwaukee Mile, Andretti Green Racing teammates Tony Kanaan, who beat out Wheldon for the title in 2004, and Dario Franchitti, who won at Nashville, have moved within striking distance.

Kanaan is just 73 points behind and Franchitti trailing by 78.

More telling, Marlboro Team Penske drivers Helio Castroneves and Sam Hornish Jr. have also moved into the championship picture, trailing Wheldon by just 87 and 91 points, respectively, with eight races remaining in the 2005 season.

The Penske drivers took another step in the right direction Saturday, qualifying 1-2, with Hornish winning his third pole of the season and Castroneves just behind. Wheldon will start fourth, with Franchitti, the defending race winner, eighth.

Danica Patrick, the 23-year-old rookie who has caused so much excitement this season and is 11th in the season points, qualified sixth and kept alive hopes for her first IRL victory.

Patrick has been a catalyst for excitement this year, bringing out new fans and helping raise the IRL’s TV ratings, but the growing championship battle could at least share the spotlight with her the rest of the season.

“We don’t ever concede anything,” said Hornish, a two-time IRL champion. “Obviously, we’ve left some points behind, but we’re out there pushing hard and, sometimes, you step over (the line). I think we’ve done that a few times this year.

“We started off the season well, too,” he added. “Then we had a couple of not-so-great races and those (Andretti Green) guys had some races where nothing went wrong for them. But one of the things that keeps us motivated is knowing those guys are going to have some troubles, too, at some point. We can only do what we can do, but luck can help us out, too.”

Castroneves echoed his teammate.

“I feel we’re very strong on a lot of the tracks that are coming up, including this one. It’s going to get very exciting.”

With all those competitors closing in, Wheldon insists he remains plenty motivated, too.

“Winning the Indy 500 was a goal of mine for a long time and there are still two goals I’m looking at right now,” Wheldon said.

“Winning the championship would be a pretty big thing and I’d certainly like to beat Hornish’s record for (five) wins in a season,” he said. “That’s something that’s motivating me right now.”

Asked how he would feel if he hung on to win the championship without winning another race, Wheldon made a face.

“That would be boring, huh?” he said. “That’s not my style. I want to win more.”

AP-ES-07-23-05 1638EDT

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