Wheldon, Patrick bring fanfare to finale

BY foxsports • October 14, 2011

The IZOD IndyCar Series closed down the Las Vegas Strip Thursday night from The Flamingo to the Tropicana hotels for a prerace street party and driver introductions in front of the famed Bellagio Hotel and Casino fountain.

A few miles away at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway, rivals Dario Franchitti and Will Power will settle the season title in Sunday afternoon’s world championship 300-miler, which also happens to be Danica Patrick’s final IndyCar start before she heads full time to NASCAR.

It’s the sixth consecutive year IndyCar’s championship will come down to the last race of the season.

Target Chip Ganassi Racing’s Franchitti holds an 18-point edge over Team Penske’s Will Power as Franchitti attempts to join a list of legends, including Mario Andretti and A.J. Foyt, who have earned four championships or more.

And if there wasn’t enough hype and high stakes, just for good measure reigning Indianapolis 500 champ Dan Wheldon and a lucky fan stand to split $5 million – courtesy of GoDaddy.com – if he can rally from the last starting spot on the 34-car grid and win Sunday’s race.

It’s the largest field on an oval since the 35-car 1997 Indy 500.

If it all feels a little P.T. Barnum-like, that’s fine with these guys.

“It’s ultra-promoting and the sport needed it, frankly,’’ said team owner and former IndyCar champ Bobby Rahal. “It had been in a coma compared to the old days, when promoters really brought people to the race.’’

With the closest oval racing in all the sport, IndyCar has consistently provided on-track excitement, yet television ratings are minuscule and interest in America’s premier open-wheel series is still lacking compared to the glory days of Andretti, Foyt, Unser and Mears.

The product is good, but the sport has needed to create buzz. And that’s where second-year CEO Randy Barnard – the former head of the Professional Bullriders Association – has come in.

“It’s my job to make them bigger stars; we’ve said that from day one,’’ Barnard said.

Barnard’s headline-making original idea for the season finale was to invite five non-IndyCar regulars to join the field, offering $5 million should one of them win. But with a championship on the line, few series teams willing to field an extra car and not enough marquee-name takers on the offer, he replaced the initial format with the $5 million GoDaddy.com Challenge.

And frankly, by Vegas standards, it’s not a bad bet.

Wheldon – a former IndyCar champ and two-time Indy 500 winner – proved himself a legitimate contender even with limited track time and preparation, winning the May 29 Indianapolis 500 in his first start of the season. He’s raced only once since and his No. 77 William Rast-sponsored Honda will be a unique multiteam effort on Sunday.

“You can call me crazy, but I genuinely believed I could win the Indy 500 and I genuinely believe I can win this,’’ Wheldon said this week in the midst of a huge West Coast publicity blitz.

“You’d be undermining the competition of the series to think it would be easy. It will be hard, but I feel like our team can do it and I will give it my all.’’

Wheldon is very aware, however, of the bigger championship picture. He and Franchitti are good friends and former teammates. And he readily acknowledges that for all the publicity it has generated, his million-dollar quest is a race within a race, within a race.

“I’ve been in this position before,’’ Wheldon said with a laugh, referring to his 2005 Indy 500 victory being overshadowed by Patrick’s Rookie of the Year showing.

“So If I win it, I will make sure that the championship person gets as much of the spotlight as possible. This whole thing may be a bold idea, but it’s generated a lot of attention. I guarantee that if people switch from a football game to our race on Sunday, they will not switch back.’’

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