That honesty and that way of thinking – there's a rational explanation for every situation – I'm sure also accounts for Wilson's ability to face career frustrations with equanimity. But that's not to say he relishes being cast as the permanent dark horse rather than the favorite, and it wouldn't be a surprise if he were looking around for alternative options.
No one, surely not even Coyne himself, could expect his Plainfield, Ill.,-based team to tackle Penske, Ganassi and Andretti over the long haul of a championship…and especially not from 2015, when IndyCar opens up those tech boxes, body kits are introduced, and a little more innovation is allowed. It took the considerable talents of Wilson and Pappas for Dale Coyne Racing to break into the winner's circle in 2009, after 23 years of struggle (BELOW). With the considerable help of Wilson, Pappas and a near-frozen technical rulebook since the introduction of the Dallara DW12, DCR is now regularly in the top eight, sometimes contends for podiums and very occasionally has race-winning potential.
Now that would be fine for a 22-year-old Indy Lights grad, but Justin no longer has that luxury. While Dario Franchitti (40 years old) and Tony Kanaan (39 in December) appear to be driving as well as ever, which would imply that 35-year-old Wilson has another five or six seasons left in IndyCar, he needs a seat with one of the potential title-winning squads. Feeding off their scraps can no longer satisfy his hunger.
So where's better than DCR? I threw a couple of team names out there, and Wilson's sarcastic return was, “OK, so all I need is $5 million…” And that, of course, is the largest problem. Dale pays and doesn't expect Justin to bring sponsorship. Others are not so generous.
And there's also that “better-the-devil-you-know” factor. Justin's been fooled once already into believing that another team's grass was greener than Coyne's. At the end of '09, he left DCR to join Dreyer & Reinbold, thinking it was a step up, and soon discovered it was no more than a sideways shuffle. As a result, during the next two seasons, you'd see occasional traces of desperation in Justin's driving, as if he was trying too hard for the few long shots thrown his way, then snatching and fumbling them. They weren't usually huge errors, but just instances where overdriving in search of those last couple tenths of a second actually lost him a few. Interestingly, his longtime rival Bourdais appears to have gone through that same phase over the past couple of seasons.
“Yeah,” Wilson agreed, when I compared his traits then with Seb's now. “The experienced guys should know better, but when you're in a midfield team, it's easy to start getting frustrated and overdriving when you're getting near a good result, because you're thinking, ‘How often is this chance going to come along?'
“So it's important to keep things in perspective and just carry on driving in the way that got you into that position in the first place, not start driving even harder.”
The truth is, someone of Wilson's caliber shouldn't ever need to be that desperate, to feel that he's got only one or two chances to score a victory in a 19-race season. The record book shows that Bourdais scored four Champ Car titles and 31 race wins, whereas Wilson has twice finished runner-up in the points table, and has seven victories to his name. No one can convince me that's a fair reflection of their respective abilities…and I don't mean that Seabass is overrated.
I'm not being unreasonably idealistic here; I'm well aware that since racing began, there have been imbalances like this in the talent/result equation. A couple of weeks ago, I asked Robin Miller to name the three Indy car drivers of the past half-century whose talents are most poorly served by their stats and he quickly responded with Mike Mosley, Lloyd Ruby and Don Branson. Confine it to the last 25 years, however, and Wilson has to be in such a selection, and maybe stands alone.
And the most absurd aspect of this situation is that Justin is not underrated by his peers, and his talents are appreciated by the fans, as well as the media. Unfortunately, though, he is spectacularly undervalued by the few team owners who could, if they hired him, make a significant difference to his – and their – win ratio.