INDIANAPOLIS – Everything is going right for Dan Wheldon.
The 26-year-old Englishman was the IRL series runner-up last year to Andretti Green Racing teammate Tony Kanaan. They’re still 1-2, only now it’s Wheldon with a comfortable lead after winning three of the season’s first four races.
On Tuesday, Wheldon had his first practice for the Indianapolis 500, and within five laps posted the fastest speed among all drivers on the track.
“I wouldn’t get too excited about that so far,” he said. “I’ve been in some fortunate positions, but we’ve also put ourselves in those positions, and we’ve been fast all year. We’ve just got to continue to do the same.
“But who really cares about the rest of the year, other than this race. That’s all I care about.”
His top lap during that early run on the newly resurfaced Indianapolis Motor Speedway oval was 224.998 mph in his backup car. He went out later in his primary Honda-powered car and did even better, finishing the day with the quickest lap at 226.808.
His car and the next 21 were all faster than race winner Buddy Rice’s 222.024 pole qualifying speed of last year.
Scott Sharp was just behind Wheldon at 226.609, followed by two-time Indy champion Helio Castroneves at 226.062 and Kanaan at 225.629.
Kosuke Matsuura, the Indy and IRL series rookie of the year in 2004, was next at 225.620.
Tuesday was the first day veteran drivers were able to practice, following two days devoted to rookie testing for the race May 29.
“It’s always good to be back,” said Wheldon, who qualified second last year, led 26 laps and finished third behind Rice and Kanaan. “It’s my favorite race.
“I think it’s going to be very difficult to win. Whoever ends up winning it is going to have done a superb job because the amount of competition here is phenomenal. So I’m pumped.”
Among the others on the track was Danica Patrick, driving for Rahal Letterman Racing. She was the fastest rookie on Sunday and Monday, and continued her impressive debut on the 2 1/2 -mile track with a top lap at 223.694. Teammate Rice was at 223.077.
The other veterans also began building speed for the first of four days of qualifications on Saturday.
Castroneves, who turned 30 on Tuesday, Sharp, Dario Franchitti and Tomas Scheckter posted speeds of more than 225. Former series champion Sam Hornish Jr., 1996 Indy winner Buddy Lazier, Vitor Meira and rookie Ryan Briscoe also were among the fastest.
Wheldon, who has led the most laps (271), won the most races (4) and money ($412,600) this year, has a 184-138 lead in points over Kanaan. Wheldon needs to finish at least 24th at Indy to make sure he keeps the series lead going into the next race, June 11 at Texas Motor Speedway.
“Obviously, I think we’ll be good, and it would be very nice to be considered the favorite,” Wheldon said of his third try at Indy. “But favorites mean nothing at this place.
“All I want is one time in my career to have my face on that Borg-Warner Trophy. Whether that makes it good to be the favorite or not, I really don’t care. … But it’s going to be tight, it really is.”
Sebastien Bourdais, the defending Champ Car series champion in his first IRL race, also practiced.