As the final points race of the 2008 IndyCar Series season comes to a close, so will the first chapter of Vitor Meira's career with Panther Racing, as the team's most storied driver finds himself eased out of the line-up in favour of Dan Wheldon.
Meira, whose 48 starts are the most for the team in its eleven-year history, is scheduled to take his final green flag in the #4 car on Sunday afternoon at Chicagoland Speedway, as the PEAK Antifreeze and Motor Oil Indy 300 brings the curtain down on the 2008 season.
The Brazilian signed with Panther in February 2006, amid speculation that neither the team nor the driver would participate that season in the IndyCar Series. With little or no sponsorship in place for the season, Meira led John Barnes' squad to a fifth-place finish in the championship after a summer run that included six podium finishes. The team's place in the final standings that season was as high as it had been since two-time champion Sam Hornish Jr drove the iconic Pennzoil machine.
During the ensuing off-season, the Delphi Corporation signed as a primary sponsor for the #4 entry, while Meira signed a two-year deal to return. Although the results didn't match those of the previous season, the Brazilian still led the #4 team to three more top five results, allowing Panther to open talks with the US Army National Guard with regards to sponsoring the team in 2008.
Meira added to his highlight reel with the team this year, punctuated by a thrilling second place finish at the Indianapolis 500 – the team's best career effort at the Brickyard – that included a breathtaking pass from third place to first at a lap 160 restart. He would lead twelve laps at the 2.5-mile oval and eventually finish second to current points leader Scott Dixon.
At Kentucky Speedway, Meira started on the front row, alongside Dixon, his 45th race for Panther surpassing Hornish Jr's previous record. He paced the field that day and, so far this season, has led a total of 80 laps in six different events, the most in any of his three years with Panther. However, he is still seeking a maiden IndyCar win, but is only losing his grip on the #4 as sponsorship remains a question mark for 2009.
“We appreciate all the efforts and hard work that Vitor Meira has put into the last three years with Panther Racing," CEO Barnes commented, ""This chapter of Panther and Vitor's career together has paused, but it's clearly not over. I've said this before, and it's especially true in this case, but the door is not closed for Vitor to sometime drive for us again.
"He's got all the talent in the world and he's been a hard worker, a great person and an ambassador for all of our partners in this team over the years. Vitor has become a very close friend of mine, to all Panther employees and the Barnes family. We wish him nothing but the best good luck in the future, and we'll give him nothing but the best of our efforts this weekend at Chicagoland Speedway.”