As NASCAR gets ready for the first major racing weekend at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway since the fatal accident in last year's IndyCar season finale, the loss of Dan Wheldon still weighs heavily in the sport.
Although the Sprint Cup Series drivers will be all business in Sunday's Kobalt Tools 400, several drivers said that 2005 IndyCar champion Wheldon would be in their thoughts on the weekend.
"It's definitely a tough thing to overcome — I have been through it before with other friends that I have lost in motorsports," said five-time Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson.
"You try to push it out of your mind and you try not to think about it. Certainly, we know what has happened and some of us were close to Dan and it tugs on us emotionally, but it's easier for us as drivers to say that was in a different car and in a different style of racing."
Johnson ran into trouble with some IndyCar fans last year when he said after Wheldon's death that the series shouldn't run on ovals because it was too dangerous. While some noses were out of joint, it was clear that the No. 48 Chevy driver's comments were out of concern for other drivers and not a criticism of IndyCar.
Two-time Indianapolis 500 champion Wheldon died in a 15-car pile-up at the high-banked 1.5-mile oval last October, 11 laps into the season finale. His car became airborne after hitting wheel-on-wheel with another car and then careened into the catch fence. The 33-year-old from England died of blunt force trauma to his head, which hit one of the metal posts that keep the fence in place.
While Wheldon won his IndyCar championship and one Indy 500 while racing for the Ganassi team, its NASCAR driver, Juan Pablo Montoya, won't have the same feeling about the first major race weekend in Las Vegas as some of the other drivers.
"Right now, I don't think about," said Montoya, who raced for Ganassi in the old Championship Auto Racing Teams (commonly known as CART).
"I tested here in November between the Texas and Phoenix races and then it was a little hard. I was thinking about it then because it was — it hadn't even been a month. We are running a sticker here on the car in his memory, but you are driving the car and that's all you doing right now."
Montoya won the 1999 CART title as well as the 2000 Indianapolis 500 with Ganassi before heading to Formula One in 2001. He joined Ganassi's NASCAR team in 2007 and drives the No 42 Chevy.
Greg Biffle said he doesn't really pay much attention to other series that might run at the Speedway, but the No. 16 Ford driver found himself wondering on the way to the track if this weekend's Cup event would be the first major race since the accident that took Wheldon's life.
"I thought about it when I drove through the tunnel last night [Thursday] coming here," he said. "We all think about it because what we do is a dangerous sport. That’s an underlying factor we know that can happen with what we do, so you try and be the best prepared you can be when you go into all these races and anytime you get in the car, so that’s what I concentrate on is just being prepared inside and outside the car for what can happen."
What happens in Vegas ...
Brad Keselowski may be in Las Vegas, but don't expect him to place a bet on who will win the Kobalt Tools 400.
It's not that the Penske driver dislikes gambling — he spent some time at his hotel playing some games of chance in the lead-up to the race weekend, it's just that he's not sure how the bookies work out the odds.
"NASCAR is not a good sport to gamble on," he said. It's almost more flattering for me to see the sport lined up next to the NBA and NFL. It's a kind of validation of status more than anything else."
And even if he did like the odds, would he bet on his No. 22 Penske Dodge going into Sunday's race?
"Not on this weekend — you obviously haven't read my stats here."
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