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Friday, March 9, 2012
Updated: March 10, 8:41 PM ET
Conflicting emotions for Danica at Vegas track

By Brant James

There are memories of triumph and tragedy for Danica Patrick at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. It was clear which ones filled her mind Friday afternoon.

Although she already had returned to the track since friend/competitor/would-be successor Dan Wheldon was killed in her final IndyCar race there on Oct. 16, the clatter of a race weekend had loosed recollections she thought had been processed and sorted away.

"It is in the moments where you don't have a singular focus -- like walking up to the media center here today and seeing the Neon Garage and kind of the atmosphere that was here that weekend and where we were pitted and the things that we were around and the sights that you saw -- where you can have time to sort of think about multiple things that it gets to you," Patrick said of the invading memories. "As I walked up today, I said to [assistant] Haley [Riffle] that it reminds me so much of being here the IndyCar weekend, just with the garage area and walking up to the media center. And so you're reminded in those moments."

Danica Patrick
Danica Patrick made history with a fourth-place showing in Las Vegas last season, the best finish for a woman in a national NASCAR race.

Wheldon, who in the hours preceding his death had agreed to return to Andretti Autosport and replace Patrick in the program, died after his car was sent airborne in a 15-car melee and went cockpit first into a fence support pole.

On Wednesday, Wheldon's comrades sat under a striking Florida sky in St. Petersburg -- his adopted hometown -- as a section of the IndyCar race course there was renamed "Dan Wheldon Way." Patrick, who left that series after seven seasons to begin her first full Nationwide and partial Sprint Cup campaign this year, began her media availability with her own tribute Friday, saying her thoughts were with Wheldon's widow, Susie, and sons, Sebastian, 3, and Oliver, who turns 1 this month.

"Time is a healer for sure, but there won't be a time I come here when I don't think of it," Patrick said. "... I think it will never completely escape, and that's what tragedy will do to you."

From the outside, Wheldon and Patrick's relationship had been viewed as adversarial, especially since Patrick confronted him on pit road after what she thought was a racing slight at Milwaukee in 2007. Whatever problems they might have had, Wheldon spoke well of Patrick just days before his death, telling espnW, "She's a good friend and a nice person and she's done well for herself, and I think people should respect that."

Patrick said focusing on the present had so far been easier when driving the No. 7 Chevrolet. That likely will be her refuge and possible source of better memories at a place where she has both beamed with pride and wept on pit road. Last spring, she enjoyed her brightest moment in stock cars there, finishing fourth in the Nationwide race to break Sara Christian's 62-year-old record for the highest-finishing female driver in a NASCAR national series race. Christian had finished fifth at Heidelberg Raceway (Pa.) on Oct. 2, 1949.

Patrick is in need of similar results as she seeks traction early this season; she said she was "frustrated at the end of last week's race," a 21st-place, three-laps-down ordeal at Phoenix International Raceway.

"No one on our team was happy with that finish, and we shouldn't have been," she said. "When you look back on it, it's one of those days that's a character builder."

This weekend's event in Las Vegas is about moving on for Patrick, both emotionally (on a larger scale) and professionally. She finished 38th at Daytona in the season opener, but still has self-imposed high expectations considering her finish last spring and aptitude on high-banked, 1.5-mile tracks.

A strong showing in Las Vegas also could be a harbinger of broader success this season, as intermediate tracks such as Las Vegas comprise much more of the NASCAR schedule than restrictor plate and one-mile oddities that are Daytona and Phoenix, respectively.

"I think the expectation for this week is a top-10 finish," she said. "We ran well on the mile and halves last year. I get along better with the banked tracks with more grip. They're a little more of a translation from my experience in IndyCar. That's why Texas and Vegas and places like that are good for me because that's more of what I am used to."

This weekend, familiar can be good and bad, depending on whether it's racing or remembering.