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Wheldon's death affects NASCAR

TALLADEGA, Ala. -- Tony Stewart competes in NASCAR. His heart, though, belongs to open-wheel racing, and he spent the first 25 years of his life trying to get to Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

When he did, in 1996, he and teammate Scott Brayton qualified first and second. Six days later, Brayton was killed during a practice run.

Stewart, a rookie that year, continued on every day at Indianapolis, started his first 500 nine days later and led 44 laps until his engine blew -- finally bringing an end to what was supposed to be a celebration of him fulfilling his lifelong dream.

But that's what racers do. They race, and they'll race Sunday afternoon at Talladega Superspeedway, where NASCAR becomes the first major series to run since Dan Wheldon died Sunday in the IndyCar season finale.

"It doesn't affect us, getting back in the car," Stewart said Friday at Talladega. "We all know that can happen every week. It's been a part of racing forever.

Only some in NASCAR knew Wheldon, a popular two-time Indianapolis 500 winner who raced in a rival series. But his death touched everyone, and, 10 years after NASCAR's last fatality, brought the element of danger back to the spotlight.

NASCAR finds itself this weekend on its biggest and fastest track, where speeds can hit 200 mph and Carl Edwards' car went sailing into the fence in a 2009 last-lap accident. Debris from that accident flew into the grandstands, and seven fans were injured.

"That scared me," Edwards said of the fan injuries. "Fortunately, everybody was OK and everything worked out and all the safety stuff in place worked and went our way. But that was a little wake-up call to me that this stuff is serious, and you have to be careful."

Most drivers refuse to even think about the risk factor when they get into the car. But five-time defending champion Jimmie Johnson, who walked away from a nasty hit in Saturday night's race at Charlotte, admitted Wheldon's death has made drivers confront the dangers.

Johnson was one of 10 drivers who tested at Charlotte on Monday, the day after Wheldon's accident.

"Getting in the car deep in the back of my mind, just thinking about things and there's my marks in the wall in turn two and I'm like 'Yeah, I had a bad angle and I hit pretty hard,' " Johnson said.

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