- John Oreovicz, Autos, Open-Wheel
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LAS VEGAS -- The racing world may have thought Dan Wheldon had experienced the highest highs and the lowest lows that the sport had to offer in 2011.
But then motorsports suffered the lowest point possible with Wheldon's death Sunday at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
Wheldon started the season unemployed but parlayed a one-off drive in the Indianapolis 500 into his second Indy win and the richest payday of his racing career. And he was on the brink of even greater things in the years ahead. But he got caught in a 15-car crash on the 11th lap of the Las Vegas Indy 300.
The 2005 IndyCar Series champion's car was launched into the catch fence, causing what INDYCAR termed "unsurvivable injuries."
Wheldon was 33 years old and leaves a wife and two children.
ESPN.com learned from team owner Michael Andretti that just hours prior to Sunday's race, Wheldon signed a multiyear deal to replace Danica Patrick in Andretti Autosport's No. 7 car sponsored by GoDaddy.com.
Wheldon drove for Andretti Autosport from 2003 to 2005, winning the 2005 Indianapolis 500 and series championship. He was part of a powerful, four-car Andretti juggernaut including Dario Franchitti, Tony Kanaan and Bryan Herta that won 11 of 17 races during that magical '05 season.
"He was a very close friend and we had just literally inked it this morning," Andretti said. "We had great plans to do fun things together. I'm going to miss him. There was a lot of life in that guy. He was part of the glory days here. We had a combination that has never been put together in the sport of auto racing, in my opinion.
"But it's part of our sport. He knew the risks; we all know the risks when we get in the car. It probably touches me a little more because of everything that was going on. It's a terrible thing, but unfortunately in our sport we've had a lot of days like these. They suck, but that's the way it is."
Wheldon was making only his third start of the 2011 season. He spent much of the year serving as the test and development driver for the new chassis that the IndyCar Series is introducing for 2012.
At Las Vegas, Wheldon was part of a publicity stunt known as the GoDaddy IndyCar Challenge in which he would have split a $5 million prize with a fan should he have won the race.
Wheldon started from the back of the 34-car field and had moved up to 24th place when the carnage unfolded on the 11th of a scheduled 200 laps.
It appeared that Wheldon never lifted from the throttle before striking the back of E.J. Viso's car, sending Wheldon's No. 77 Sam Schmidt Motorsports entry airborne into a barrel roll.
The car struck the catch fence with enough force to shear the roll hoop cleanly from the top of the Dallara chassis.
"I don't know what I can say to comfort anybody," said Kanaan, who aside from being Wheldon's teammate from 2003 to 2005 was one of his closest friends. "But I think if you asked everyone in this field how they would want to go, that's the way. If I could choose I'd do the same. But right now I can't describe the pain.
"I just pray that he rests in peace. Right now I just want to give my support to his family. He was one of my best friends and one of my greatest teammates back in the day."
Kanaan and Franchitti shared a similar experience in 1999 when their close friend Greg Moore was killed during the season finale at California Speedway. The Brazilian, who won the IndyCar title in 2004 and served as a mentor to Wheldon, put the day's events into perspective.
"We don't think about things like this," Kanaan said. "As race car drivers, we have to block out that possibility. Unfortunately when it happens it's really hard.
"But what we do is dangerous and we face that every day," Kanaan continued. "It's been happening for years, for decades. It's just hard to swallow, but we have to move on. We're racers; we love what we do. Eventually we're going to have to turn the page and remember him with the great memories we have. I know exactly what he would say if I told him I was going to quit: He'd say he was going to take my place."
Franchitti paid tribute to Wheldon on a day when the focus was meant to have been on him. Franchitti clinched his fourth IndyCar series title (and third consecutive) on Sunday when his championship rival, Will Power, was involved in the same crash that killed Wheldon.
"Right now I'm numb and speechless," Franchitti said. "One minute you're joking around at driver intros and the next Dan's gone. We had a couple of fallouts over the way, but we were friends. Everybody in IndyCar Series considered Dan a friend. You saw the reaction. He was one of those special, special people from when he showed up first in IndyCar. And he was kind of brash, all that stuff, but he was a charmer. Then he became this loving family guy who is still charming, but he had this whole new side to him.
"I'm just thinking of [Wheldon's wife] Susie and the boys," Dario added. "When I think about them, I'm struggling to hold it together. I don't know what else to say."
For Franchitti, the similarities to the Moore tragedy of 1999 were uncanny. The only difference this year is that he came out on top in the championship standings.
"We can put so much pressure on ourselves to win races and championships, and that's what we love to do," Franchitti said. "It's what we live for.
"But on days like today, it doesn't really matter."
John Oreovicz covers open-wheel racing for ESPN.com.