- Associated Press - Friday, March 9, 2012

LAS VEGAS (AP) - Between preparing the car and turning practice laps for this weekend’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.

The series was hoping to make a splash, too, that a season finale in Las Vegas would be a showcase for the sport. The series put up its own money to promote the event, renting the track from owner Bruton Smith, and took over a section of The Strip so its cars could do a few hot laps under the neon lights.

There also was the added specter of Wheldon taking home a $5 million prize as part of a promotion if he could win the Oct. 16 race.

Instead, it ended in disaster.

Twelve laps into the 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.

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