TALLADEGA - Dan Wheldon will be on the minds and on the cars of the 43 NASCAR Sprint Cup drivers who will start the Good Sam Club 500 on Sunday at Talladega Superspeedway.
Not just with the Lion Heart decals given to each of them to honour the two-time Indianapolis 500 winner who was killed in a horrendous 15-car wreck at Las Vegas Motor Speedway last Sunday, but because everyone of those 43 drivers knows, or at least should know, that in front of them will be 500 miles of the most dangerous racing NASCAR offers.
Yet, like their brothers and sisters in the IZOD IndyCar Series will when the 2012 season starts at St. Petersberg next March, the Cup drivers will climb in their 200-m.p.h. race cars and do the job that everyone of them has dreamed of doing since the first time they sat in a go-kart as kids.
Certainly Wheldon’s death at Las Vegas will give more than one of them a moment’s pause in the seconds before the race starts but once on the track at speed most of them will be concentrating on the job at hand — winning the race.
On Friday at Talladega’s 2.66-mile banked oval Kyle Busch witnessed first hand the damage that can result from a misstep on this track.
In the second practice of the day, his No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota cut a tire sending Busch and his car violently into the outside wall.
His car was destroyed, but Busch walked away ready to get into a backup Toyota for another crack at Talladega.
Earlier in the day, Busch spoke about what happened to Wheldon and how it affected him and his racing.
“It’s certainly a tragic loss and can happen in any form of motorsports,” he said. “I think that it’s a matter of circumstances that just don’t go your way. It can happen in drag racing, it can happen in NASCAR, it can happen in IndyCar and it has happened in Formula One.”
But Busch said he cannot let what happened in Las Vegas affect the way he drives or the way he approaches the sport that he clearly loves.
He said he know about the dangers every driver faces. However, he said, that is all part of the allure of racing.
“Certainly we account for that and there is a danger aspect; there is a threat that something horrifying can happen,” Busch said. “For myself, how do I look at it? I’m thankful that I have a wife that lets me do what I love to do. It’s something that I do love to do and I don’t want to give up.”
He did admit that other drivers like Jeff Gordon, Carl Edwards and Jimmie Johnson, all who have children, may face more stress than he does.
“For those guys like Jeff, Carl, Jimmie with families now, certainly it’s that much more challenging and that much more to think about. I’ve got a couple more years probably before I get to that point.”
Even when he does have a family, Busch said that he doesn’t think it will change the way he thinks about his chosen career.
“I don’t know that much will change ... it’s what we live with every day,” he said.
Busch, one of NASCAR’s brightest young stars at just 26 years old, said he is a bit of a fatalist in that he thinks if something terrible is going to happen it can just as easily happen at home in the front yard as out on a race track at 200 m.p.h.
“You could be a kid playing in your front yard and you lose your ball and it rolls across the street and there a car comes,” he said. “There’s tragedy everywhere in this world and certainly it can be at a race track with a lot of hype built around it, but it could just as easily happen in your front yard.”
For four-time champion Gordon, he too, takes somewhat the same approach to dealing with the potential dangers of the sport.
“I know that what we do here, especially at Talladega, is dangerous and we’re taking risks but I still feel like we have a tremendously safe race car in our series here,” he said.
Gordon said that he won’t be doing anything different because of what occurred last week.
“I don’t think that makes us race any more cautiously or do anything more different than we normally would do,” he said. “We’re not out here trying to wreck. We’re not out here trying to send cars into the fence, we’re just out here racing and accidents and mistakes are going to be made.
“There (may) be consequences due to that but it doesn’t change anything we’re going to do out there on the race track.”