Wheldon memories weigh on Danica at Vegas
10 March 2012
It's nearly five months ago that Danica Patrick was last at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, but it's not an occasion that she is ever likely to forget in a hurry - and nor will anyone else.
On October 16, Patrick was competing in what was meant to be her final IZOD IndyCar Series race here, when suddenly all hell broke loose and 15 cars were swept up into a devastating accident. Worst of all, the wreck claimed the life of the 2011 Indianapolis 500 champion Dan Wheldon.
"There won't be a time that I come to Las Vegas and won't think about Dan and think about the family and hope that they are doing well," said Patrick at a press conference ahead of this weekend's Sam's Town 300 Nationwide Series race on Saturday evening.
"Obviously, the last time I was here was a sad weekend. My thoughts are still with Susie and the kids, and I hope they're doing well," she added. "I think time is a healer, for sure. But there won't be a time I come here that I won't think of it."
Asked whether the memories of that dreadful race affected her performance in the car, Patrick explained that there was a different mindset for a driver when they were behind the wheel.
"As race car drivers, our job is to drive the cars to the edge," she said. "Our job is to drive the race car and we need to be able to do that with our whole heart and mind, so I went out there and drove just like any other day. It's your single focus.
"But it's the moments outside of the car when you remember so much. I don't think it ever completely escapes you," she went on. "All of the things I did that week of the race, whether it was driving up and down The Strip in our race cars or going to certain restaurants or being at the track and seeing certain things around us, it will never completely escape. And that's what tragedy will do to you."
It's not just Patrick with the events of last October very much on her mind in the NASCAR paddock this weekend. "I thought about it when I drove through the tunnel [into the infield] last night," admitted Greg Biffle.
"It's definitely a tough thing to overcome and I've been through it before with other friends that I've lost in motorsports," contributed five-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson. "You try to push it out of your mind. You try not to think about it ... Some of us were close with Dan and it tugs on us emotionally."
Johnson was particularly aware of how it must be affecting Patrick on her first return to the city and the speedway where she had a chilling front row seat for the events of that day.
"I'm sure it's hard on Danica coming back," he said, suddenly reminded how close she'd been to the accident itself on the day. "Wow, I guess I hadn't put much thought into that ... In my mind, she's been a stock car driver for a while now."
But unlike the soul-searching that's been going on in IndyCar since the accident, at least NASCAR drivers don't come into this year's Vegas event with major safety fears or significant worries about a similar fatal incident happening.
"The thing that made that accident so big is it really doesn't happen in these cars," pointed out Danica of the way in which direct tyre-to-tyre contact is possible in open-wheel racing, which resulted in several cars - Wheldon's among them - being launched into the air. "The likelihood of being able to climb wheels in IndyCars, that kind of thing doesn't happen in stock cars," she said.
"You know when you get side by side with somebody [in NASCAR] and if you get a little too close and bump each other that you're just going to bump each other and that's pretty much the extent of it," she added. "There's definitely some peace in that."
"Like what the drivers have said, it's a completely different kind of car with different safety features," said the president of Las Vegas Motor Speedway, Chris Powell. "They're not travelling as fast and they don't hook tyres and wheels in this sport the way they do in IndyCar ... I have not spoken to one person who has said, 'I am not coming back to your speedway because of the tragedy that happened in October.'"
But Kyle Busch - who grew up in Las Vegas and still calls LVMS his home race - sounded a note of caution against overconfidence. "I wouldn't say our cars are perfectly safe, but certainly they do give you a false sense maybe sometimes," he said. "Anything can certainly happen."
Busch then went on to put that in context: "Whether you're walking across the street, playing out in the sand dunes or racing around a race track - there's something that can happen around every turn."
Perhaps the inevitable melancholy feel to the Vegas weekend was the reason why Danica Patrick went on to give an unusually downbeat summary of the start of her NASCAR season so far, admitting that she'd taken on too much at Daytona with both her Nationwide race and her Cup début in the Daytona 500 along with an overload of media obligations.
As a result, she revealed that she had been "tapped out and exhausted" at the end of the 2012 Speedweeks events, which had manifested as flashes of anger. Patrick made clear that the anger wasn't directed at those around her such as her JR Motorsports crew chief Tony Eury Jr., however.
"When I get mad, I don't get mad at anyone, I'm just mad at myself," she explained. "I wasn't mad at the team. I wasn't mad at Tony or anybody." In future, she said that she would need to "catch it before it gets to that point so that I have the energy to do the right thing and to be a good person and to be happy and smile instead of just feeling exhausted and letting kind of the worst of me come out."
Patrick conceded that she needs to learn to manage the expectations of others and moreover herself, and not let the pressure get to her in future.
"I can't let all of the exposure and hype and hope - I'm serious when I say 'hope' - to do well, I can't let that be something that makes me feel like I have to do well," Patrick said. "I need to remember that there are so many of these darn races and you just need to move on.
"I think I gave myself maybe a little bit of false expectation about running this year for the championship," she admitted. "Using those words - 'for the championship!' It really is still my first-ever full year and what I've done still doesn't add up to one year and I didn't have anything before that in stock cars."
Her Nationwide Series car owner, Cup driver Dale Earnhardt Jr., also tried passing on a few words of wisdom from his years of experience of NASCAR.
"I didn't run much better [at Phoenix.] She has to understand that sometimes there are going to be off weekends and the car isn't going to do well," he said. "She's getting to the point where she can feel that kind of confidence when she goes to certain race tracks that she performs well at. I'm sure she'll be disappointed with anything less than a top-five finish this weekend [at Vegas.]
Patrick posted her best NASCAR result so far this time last year at Vegas with a fourth-place finish. Returning to Vegas in a stock car should have been a cause of excitement and optimism for her, but the events that occurred in the interim in IndyCar clearly cloud the matter.
"She has a long road in front of her and I think she understands that. I hope she does at least," was the opinion of 2010 Nationwide champion Brad Keselowski. "She's obviously behind before the weekend ever starts, as is every Nationwide rookie, and there's challenges ahead for her.
"You know, I guess at the end of the day, if she can overcome those challenges and find a way to be successful, then she will have really earned a spot in this sport," he summed up. "But the odds are very much stacked against her."