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Wheldon then appeared to drive over a car driven by Paul Tracy, who seemed to be slowing down. Wheldon, however, went airborne and spun into the fence.

The track was red-flagged following the accidents while crews worked on fences and removed smashed cars.

“It was like a movie scene which they try to make as gnarly as possible,” said Danica Patrick, making her final IndyCar start. “It was debris everywhere across the whole track. You could smell the smoke. You could see the billowing smoke on the back straight from the car. There was a chunk of fire that we were driving around. You could see cars scattered.”

Wheldon, who came to the United States from England in 1999, won 16 times in his IndyCar career and was the series champion in 2005.

Despite winning this year’s Indy 500, Wheldon couldn’t put together a full-time ride this season. He landed in this race thanks to Bernard’s promise of $5 million to any moonlighting driver who could win the IndyCar season finale at Vegas. Although there were no takers, Bernard didn’t scrap the idea, and Wheldon was declared eligible for the prize.

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.”

Drivers had been concerned about the high speeds at the track, where they were hitting nearly 225 mph during practice.

“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,” driver Oriol Servia said. “We knew if could happen, but it’s just really sad.”

Cunningham echoed those remarks.

“Things happen in this kind of racing,” he said. “It’s so close. Not much room for error. I was near the front of what caused all this, so I’m not thrilled about it. At this point, whose fault it was is kind of immaterial.”

Asked about speed after the crash, Wheldon’s former boss Chip Ganassi said, “There’ll be plenty of time in the offseason to talk about that. Now is not the time to talk about that.”

And Franchitti said: “I agree. We’ll discuss that and sort it 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’d 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 what’s hoped to be a strong season in 2013 with the introduction of a new car and new manufacturers.

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