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But driver Oriol Servia didn’t mince words: “We all had a bad feeling about this place in particular just because of the high banking and how easy it was to go flat. And if you give us the opportunity, we are drivers and we try to go to the front. We race each other hard because that’s what we do,” he said. “We knew if could happen, but it’s just really sad.”

Wheldon had been providing blog posts for USA Today in the days leading up to the Las Vegas race, and in one posted Saturday to the newspaper’s website he spoke of how he expected Sunday to be “pure entertainment.”

“This is going to be an amazing show,” Wheldon wrote. “The two championship contenders, Dario Franchitti and Will Power, are starting right next to each other in the middle of the grid. Honestly, if I can be fast enough early in the race to be able to get up there and latch onto those two, it will be pure entertainment. It’s going to be a pack race, and you never know how that’s going to turn out.”

The accident spoiled what Bernard had hoped would be a showcase event for the struggling IndyCar Series.

The second-year CEO worked the entire season on turning the finale into a spectacle, and said he would offer his resignation to the IndyCar board of directors if ABC’s broadcast didn’t pull a .8 ranking. His goal was to improve upon last year’s season finale’s horrible television rating and give the series some momentum for a strong season in 2013 with the introduction of a new car and new manufacturers.

So Bernard poured everything into Las Vegas, renting the speedway from owner Bruton Smith and agreeing to promote the event himself. He landed enough sponsorship to at least break even on race, and the $5 million challenge bought him an enormous amount of publicity the entire year.

Bernard got the Las Vegas Strip to close to stage a parade of cars, hosted industry parties and a blackjack tournament all to boost interest in the race. He even got MGM Grand Resorts to offer a pair of tickets to anyone staying this weekend in one of the chain’s 14 properties.

But what was hoped to be a day of celebration quickly turned somber.

When drivers returned to the track for the tribute laps, Wheldon’s No. 77 was the only one on the towering scoreboard. Franchitti sobbed uncontrollably as he got back into his car for the memorial ride. The sound of “Danny Boy” echoed around the track, followed by “Amazing Grace.” Hundreds of crew workers and representatives from each team stood at attention in honor of Wheldon.

“What can you say? We’re going to miss him,” Ganassi said. “Everybody in IndyCar died a little today.”

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AP Writer Ken Ritter in Las Vegas, AP Auto Racing Writer Jenna Fryer in Charlotte and AP Sports Writer Tim Reynolds in Miami contributed to this report.