March 10, 2012 in Sports

Wheldon’s death looms as racing returns to Vegas

Associated Press

Between preparing the car and turning practice laps for today’s Nationwide race, Danica Patrick didn’t have a lot of time to think about the last time she was at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

But as she made her way from the garage to the media center, Patrick’s thoughts caught up with her.

Seeing the setup of the garage, her pit stall from last year, the neon sign above garage, it all took her back to the final race of her IndyCar career – the day Dan Wheldon died.

“When you have time to think about multiple things, that’s when it hits you,” a somber Patrick said Friday.

Major racing returns to Las Vegas Motor Speedway this weekend for the first time since Wheldon was killed in a fiery crash last fall.

Speedway officials don’t plan any memorials or tributes to the two-time Indy 500 champion and neither does NASCAR.

Earnhardt Ganassi Racing drivers Jamie McMurray and Juan Pablo Montoya will have decals on their cars – Wheldon drove three years for Chip Ganassi Racing – and some fans are planning to tweet Wheldon’s No. 77 on the 77th lap of the Sprint Cup and Nationwide races, but that’s about it for tributes.

Still, Wheldon’s death likely will loom over everything that happens this weekend, from the time the drivers go through the tunnel just below where Wheldon died to the time the haulers take the cars to the next race.

“You try to push it out of your mind, you try not to think about it,” said Jimmie Johnson, who knew Wheldon. “It’s easier for us as stock-car drivers to come back to this track, but certainly we know what happened and it tugs on us emotionally.”

That isn’t the case for Patrick.

On her way to NASCAR full-time, she went into Las Vegas last fall hoping to do something special in her final race as a full-time IndyCar driver.

Twelve laps into the Oct. 16 race, Wheldon came roaring up to a 15-car pileup in progress and had nowhere to go. Wheldon’s car became entangled in the careening cars and went airborne, sailing into a catch fence around turn 2. The reigning Indy 500 champion died from head injuries after his car hit a post on the fence cockpit-first.

Kahne on pole

Kasey Kahne will start on the pole for Sunday’s Sprint Cup Kobalt Tools 400 after setting a track record on a fast day of qualifying at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

Kahne had a top speed of 190.456 mph on the 1.5-mile tri-oval on Friday to earn his 23rd career pole and first since joining Hendrick Motorsports.

Kyle Busch qualified second after 15 drivers eclipsed Matt Kenseth’s record of 188.884 mph set in 2011.

It’s the fourth straight year the track record was broken.

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