Patrick finds comfort in running Wheldon tribute

Danica Patrick looks on in the garage during Friday's practice for the Nationwide Series
O'Reilly Auto Parts Challenge at Texas Motor Speedway. Credit: 
Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images
Nearly three weeks after the death of Dan Wheldon, Danica Patrick said “it feels comforting in a way” to have her friend and fellow IndyCar driver’s “Lionheart” logo on her Nationwide Series car this weekend at Texas Motor Speedway.

“You know, I kind of feel like I have a little angel in a way,” Patrick said Friday at Texas.

“I tell you what – when they pop the hood open and work on the car, to see ‘Lionheart’ as I’m staring – that’s all I have to stare at while I’m sitting in my car waiting for changes. It’s a cool thing, it’s a privilege and like I said, it’s almost a little comforting.”

Wheldon succumbed to injuries suffered from a 15-car wreck in the IZOD IndyCar Series season finale Oct. 16 at Las Vegas. The race, which was canceled after the fatal crash, marked Patrick’s last as a full-time IndyCar driver before moving to NASCAR full-time next year.

To pay tribute to Wheldon’s memory, Patrick and are running a special memorial paint scheme on the No. 7 JR Motorsports Chevrolet at Texas. Patrick will also be wearing a special tribute helmet to honor Wheldon, which she will donate after the race to be auctioned off on The auction has raised more than $200,000 for the Dan Wheldon Family Trust.

Patrick said she will also donate her prize money from Saturday’s O’Reilly Auto Parts Challenge Nationwide race to the Dan Wheldon Foundation.

“My hope is that we can do everything possible to come together and to honor Dan and to support Susie and the kids," Patrick said. “I’m honored, it’s a privilege and thank you to everybody who made it come together. It’s a special car this weekend.”

Texas marks the first weekend that Patrick has run in the Nationwide Series since the end of the IndyCar season and Wheldon’s fatal crash.

“It was really nice to just have a couple of weeks off, and create some space between that weekend and those emotions and getting back on the racetrack again,” Patrick said.

She recalled the 2006 crash at Homestead that claimed the life of Paul Dana, her teammate when she was driving for Rahal-Letterman Racing. Dana was killed in the morning warm-up wreck.

“As a result, we stopped doing morning warm-ups like that, so that was a good change I think,” Patrick said. “And that’s what I hope can come from this: it’s a tragedy, and it’s terrible, and it’s nothing anybody wants to happen, but hopefully everyone can learn and be better for it and be safer from it. That’s my hope.

“I have dealt with this before, and it’s never easy." 

Patrick said Rahal-Letterman Racing sat out the first event of the 2006 IndyCar season in honor of their teammate. Then she described the IndyCar drivers’ meeting at Las Vegas after they learned of Wheldon’s death, where they struggled with how to proceed next.

“We came into the driver’s meeting room after we had been told Dan had passed away. Then it was a discussion about, ‘What do we do? Do we go out there?’ And there was all kinds of conversation on how to race, two- and three-wide, and how to restrict things, and it was just a very complicated conversation. But Randy (Bernard, IndyCar CEO) did come in and say, ‘Look, you guys can’t think straight right now - I’m going to make this decision. You’re going to go out and do a five-lap tribute, and we’re not going to run today.’ And that was good because after a day like that, it was probably true – we couldn’t think straight.

“The five-lap tribute was nice to do. It was emotional, but it was nice to do.”

Patrick said her decision to move to NASCAR wasn’t influenced by safety - it came down to where she had the most fun racing.

“I really enjoy racing these cars,” Patrick said.

But Patrick said the racecars do feel safer than those in IndyCar.

“It does feel safer, it felt safer two years ago when I drove it for the first time,” Patrick said. “There’s a level of bravery with the car without the wheels being exposed that if you slide up or come down and move around the track a little bit, that you’re really just going to bump door to door or fender to fender. It doesn’t mean there can’t be big accidents and things can happen. A lot of the serious injuries in IndyCar come from head injuries. Being covered like that, there is definitely a level of comfort.

“I’m pleased to have a roof over my head this weekend.”

The weekend is also significant because it’s the first where Patrick will no longer be splitting her schedule between IndyCar and NASCAR. From here on out, she is all NASCAR – she will run a full schedule for JR Motorsports in the Nationwide Series in 2012 and a partial Sprint Cup schedule for Stewart-Haas.

“I’ve been describing it as the first day of the rest of my life. I’m all in here, and these are my thoughts and my focus,” Patrick said.

But she didn’t rule out running the Indianapolis 500 again, IndyCar’s premier event.

“I would love to do Indy. In my opinion, it’s the greatest race in the world. I have so many feelings and emotions and memories, and I still feel like I have memories to create.”

Patrick was 11th fastest in Friday’s first Nationwide practice at Texas and sixth-quickest in the happy hour session. She finished 22nd a year ago in her Texas Nationwide debut.

Patrick finds comfort in running Wheldon tribute Patrick finds comfort in running Wheldon tribute Reviewed by Rebecca Kivak on Friday, November 04, 2011 Rating: 5