Dan Wheldon earned his first top five finish since returning to Panther Racing, but did it the hard way after avoiding two incidents that could easily have ensnared the National Guard machine.
Having to climb from 14th place on the grid was always likely to leave the Briton in danger of being caught out by the tricky street circuit but, having not had to deal with the traditional first corner accident, he had to wait until lap 24, when he arrived on the scene of a four-car pile-up at the turn eleven hairpin. With the circuit already a parking lot ahead of him, Wheldon was lucky to avoid joining the melee, and emerged undamaged - and, more importantly, thanks to the assistance of the Delphi Safety Team, without having lost a lap to the leaders either. He returned to the fray in twelfth position, and began to climb through the field.
Up to ninth prior to another caution on lap 39, the Panther team elected not to make a pit-stop during the clean-up, and waited instead until lap 51 for new tyres and more fuel. The timing proved ideal as, just two laps later, another full-course caution put a top five finish in sight. Although technical director David Cripps repeatedly told Wheldon that he needed to conserve fuel in order to make it to the chequered flag, a final yellow flag - and a bizarre shunt involving Scott Dixon and Ryan Briscoe under it - meant that the Panther car could go the distance.
Not that the rest of the race was without incident for Wheldon, however. With under five laps remaining, Andretti Green Racing's Marco Andretti attempted an unlikely pass on the inside of turn eleven, making slight contact with the #4's right-rear wheel, but fortunately not damaging it sufficiently to halt Wheldon's momentum, which eventually led to his best finish on a street course since a podium finish at Belle Isle in 2007.
“So far, the Panther team has done a fantastic job calling the races, and this certainly was a different race - there wasn't a lot of passing out there," the Briton reflected, "Once I got off the black tyres, which I really struggled with, it really came alive. Once the track rubbered-in, that helped us as well, and the National Guard Panther Racing team did a really good job.
"I thought we were pretty competitive all weekend, but everybody worked hard and did a good job in terms of the pit-stops. It was a tough race, and a race of attrition, but we made it to a top five. It was important for us to score points going into Kansas, because that's a race I'm very confident about, but the IndyCar Series is so competitive now that you can't count your points too early.“
Wheldon enjoyed a one-day test at Kansas last week, where the team was happy with the balance of its racecar and the speeds it was able to post.
“Our goal for the weekend was to get a top five in Long Beach and then win next weekend in Kansas," Panther CEO John Barnes claimed, "We're excited about going to Kansas next weekend - and then Indianapolis after that.”