Wheldon only driver chasing IndyCar’s big payday

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LAS VEGAS (AP) - Turns out, $5 million wasn’t enough incentive to challenge IndyCar’s drivers.

In March, IndyCar series CEO Randy Bernard announced the series would pay that mega sum to any driver who could beat the open-wheel professionals at their own game in their championship race in Las Vegas.

The bonus originally was intended to lure a driver from outside the series. Instead, Bernard turned to one of his own drivers Tuesday _ two-time Indianapolis 500 winner Dan Wheldon.

He has not raced since winning his second 500 in May, making him eligible for the big prize in Las Vegas with a couple of caveats. The 2005 IndyCar champ must start from the back of the field, and if he collects, he’ll have to split the prize money with a fan chosen from a contest.

Bernard said three other drivers were considered: NASCAR’s Kasey Kahne; former Champ Car and Formula One driver Alex Zanardi; and extreme sports athlete Travis Pastrana.

Zanardi, Bernard said, wanted to drive for Chip Ganassi, a team he drove for earlier in his career. Kahne was interested in driving for Roger Penske. But with Dario Franchitti, Ganassi’s driver, and Will Power, Penske’s driver, battling for the points title for a second straight year, neither team was willing to help.

Pastrana, the 11-time X Games gold medalist, was a no-go after breaking his right ankle and foot in July at the X Games.

That left Wheldon as the only other contestant, albeit one with plenty of IndyCar experience.

He’ll take it.

“I’ve been just desperate, period, to get back in a race car since Indianapolis,” Wheldon said. “It’s going to be phenomenal to come back. What you can’t forget is there’s a world championship going on. Dario Franchitti and Will Power have been battling it out non-stop so I think there’s going to be a lot of exciting elements to Vegas.”

Still, Bernard isn’t abandoning the concept he announced in March.

“I would like to think every driver is going to benefit from this significantly if we can move the dial on the ratings,” he said. “I’ve made it very clear I’d be very disappointed — I think I even told someone I’d resign — if we didn’t triple the ratings. I think it’s very important that if we can triple the ratings, every driver will see positive momentum, every team owner will and the series will. We’re here to do one thing, and that’s continue to push viewership and our fan base upward.”

With 16 career victories, Wheldon has a solid shot to nearly double his IndyCar earnings this season.

Wheldon and his team, Bryan Herta Autosport, earned $2.56 million for the Indianapolis 500 victory in May. He has won once before when starting last, at Richmond in 2004, while driving for Michael Andretti’s team.

“I’m going to be going for it, I can assure you, and it doesn’t take $5 million for me to do that,” Wheldon said. “When you look at the depth of the field in the Izod IndyCar series right now, it’s full of talent. So it’s certainly going to be harder to come to the front than in recent years. When you consider the talent level of the grid, quite honestly, it far outweighs NASCAR, ALMS (American LeMans Series), whatever it may be. It’s incredible right now.

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