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Monday, October 17, 2011
Updated: October 18, 10:43 AM ET
Dan Wheldon's death rocks NASCAR

By David Newton
ESPN.com

CONCORD, N.C. -- On Saturday night, Jimmie Johnson was in the infield hospital at Charlotte Motor Speedway making sure he'd received no serious injuries from a violent head-on collision with the Turn 2 wall.

On Sunday, the five-time defending Sprint Cup champion was in front of a television at home with his wife and daughter, his jaw wide open, watching with the rest of the racing world the horrific crash at Las Vegas Motor Speedway that took the life of reigning Indianapolis 500 champion and friend Dan Wheldon.

On Monday, Johnson was back in his No. 48 at CMS turning laps in a fuel-injection test.

Johnson
The No. 48 Chevrolet was beyond repair Saturday night at Charlotte Motor Speedway, but Jimmie Johnson was able to walk away.

On Friday, he will climb behind the wheel for the first practice at Talladega Superspeedway, where the cars will reach speeds of close to 200 mph in packs bigger than the one that created chaos in Las Vegas.

Life goes on.

That doesn't mean there weren't a lot of heavy hearts here on a chamber of commerce day. There were. Juan Pablo Montoya, who raced against Wheldon in Europe and the United States before turning to NASCAR, barely could talk about the loss of his good friend.

As the former Daytona 500 winner wrote on Twitter, "Life is not fair."

Kasey Kahne could think of nothing but Wheldon's death when he arrived at the test. Had team owner Rick Hendrick not been against it, he probably would have accepted the $5 million GoDaddy Challenge that got Wheldon into IndyCar's season finale.

"I just think about his family and his friends and things they're probably going through," Kahne said. "I woke up this morning and that was all that was on my mind."

Then Kahne climbed into the No. 5 car he will drive for Hendrick Motorsports next season.

Life goes on.

Drivers know the risk when they get behind the wheel. Fortunately for NASCAR, the risks aren't nearly as high as they were 10 years ago when the sport lost Dale Earnhardt on the last lap of the Daytona 500.

Since then there have been innovations in the designs of the cars, seats and head and neck restraints. There has been the addition of SAFER (steel and foam energy reduction) barriers to every track.

Indianapolis Motor Speedway
The American flag at Indianapolis Motor Speedway was lowered on Monday in honor of 2011 Indy 500 winner Dan Wheldon, who was killed in a crash Sunday at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

So much has been done that drivers feel almost indestructible.

Johnson's crash Saturday night was a reminder of that. The g-forces he would have felt 10 years ago, he believes, would have been doubled. But they were spread out by technology, allowing him to return to the car two days later with only a few aches.

"We know what the risks are," Johnson said. "And I think the risk factor to driving an open-wheel car is multiplied by 10. There's got to be a big number it's multiplied by. That threat exists.

"But NASCAR has worked hard to keep speeds down. We have devices on the vehicle to help keep them on the ground. Yes, we have seen a few airborne lately, but we don't have those types of crashes. Talladega has its risks, but I just don't see our cars having the same issues. We have the potential, but I don't see the chances anywhere in the ballpark as the open-wheel cars."

Johnson is right. In 2009, Carl Edwards went airborne upside down and slammed into the catch fence at Talladega. When his car landed in a crumpled mess, he climbed out and ran across the finish line a la Ricky Bobby in "Talladega Nights."

That's what made Sunday at Las Vegas so hard. There was no running to the finish line. There were cars covered by tarps. There were smoldering chunks of car parts that made the track look like a war zone.

There was waiting.

Painful waiting.

"It impacted me dramatically," said Johnson, who had just come from playing in the backyard with his daughter on Sunday. "I sat there with my mouth wide open looking at the carnage that took place. I was glued to the television for a couple of hours watching the red flag, what unfolded.

"I couldn't believe it took Dan's life."

The incident made Johnson aware of why his attorney, who has dealt with the tragic deaths of open-wheel clients, always urged the future Hall of Famer not to pursue his goal of racing in the Indianapolis 500. It made him aware of the emotions his wife and kids would feel if he were to dabble in other forms of motorsports such as IndyCar, as he talked about only this past week.

"It's always been my dream to race the Indy 500," Johnson said. "But we kind of had a deal that once we had kids, then I needed to look the other way on that. There's a racer in me that wants to, but I know how dangerous those cars are.

"Yesterday was proof to the danger of those vehicles on ovals."

Life goes on.

It's always been my dream to race the Indy 500. But we kind of had a deal that once we had kids, then I needed to look the other way on that. There's a racer in me that wants to, but I know how dangerous those cars are.

-- Jimmie Johnson

Yet every once in a while moments like Sunday remind us all that no matter how safe these race cars seem, there's always the risk of catastrophic danger. There was a reminder of that here in Victory Lane in the form of the No. 3 Wrangler Nationwide car that Dale Earnhardt Jr. drove to victory last year at Daytona to honor his father.

Ten years ago, many thought stock cars were safe.

Then we all mourned.

Many still are.

"You get these taps on the shoulder occasionally," said Robin Pemberton, NASCAR's vice president of competition. "We all know what we do. … All series work on safety. It's never enough when things like this happen."

Thinks like what happened in Las Vegas opens eyes. Richard Childress Racing driver Jeff Burton met with Pemberton on Monday to discuss concerns he had with unprotected areas on the backstretch at CMS.

He wasn't slamming the track. He was just trying to help motorsports avoid another gut-wrenching day.

"I've said it for years: You'll never reach safety," Burton said. "It's not a goal, it's an effort, and there's no way that you can ever be as far along as you want to be."

What happened in Las Vegas impacted Burton like many others. He watched it with his wife and kids. He couldn't help but think about Wheldon's wife and kids.

But, like Johnson, he was back in the car on Monday.

"Yeah, you know, it's a hard business sometimes," Burton said. "You gotta keep going. Obviously, you watch something like that, it's horrific, it's uh, you know … somebody has a passion for something, loves doing it, but it's extremely dangerous and I think sometimes people forget how dangerous it is."

The racing community, which at times seems so large and spread out but in reality is very small and tight, was reminded of that on Sunday.

We were reminded on Monday that life goes on.

"It's a tough deal," Earnhardt said. "I can't imagine how everybody, his family and everybody in that series is dealing with it."

Actually, if anybody can imagine that, Earnhardt can. He went through it in 2001 when he lost his father. Asked to share what the Wheldons might be feeling, Earnhardt politely declined.

"Nah, I'd rather not," he said. "I mean, that's a little bit personal, so if you've got another question I'll be glad to answer it."

Life goes on.

David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at dnewtonespn@aol.com. Follow him on Twitter at @DNewtonespn.