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Racing says farewell to Wheldon; Wife's tribute to late driver leaves many in tears

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- Of all the indelible moments from Dan Wheldon's public memorial service -- fellow IndyCar drivers Dario Franchitti, Scott Dixon and Tony Kanaan serving as pallbearers, his father carrying his racing helmet and country music star Wynonna Judd singing two gripping songs -- the heart-wrenching letter from his wife cut deepest.

Susie Wheldon's letter to Dan left few eyes dry in the First Presbyterian Church of St. Petersburg.

Wheldon, a two-time Indianapolis 500 winner, died last Sunday in IndyCar's season finale at Las Vegas. He was remembered Saturday not only as a champion but as a devoted husband, caring father, loyal friend and beloved son. And one more thing: a neat freak.

Hundreds said goodbye to the 33-year-old Englishman-turned-Floridian during a service that included a eulogy by the best man at his wedding, Judd's rendition of "Amazing Grace" alongside a church choir and letters by his wife and sister that offered a detailed portrait of the popular, fun-loving and always tidy driver.

"My sweet Dan, my whole body is aching, down to the deepest part of my soul," Susie wrote in a letter read by family friend Michael Johnson. "I keep thinking this is a bad dream."

Susie wrote about how scared she is that she's going to forget things, how everything is moving so quickly and that she has to remember to breathe.

"My heart is scattered in a million pieces," she wrote. "I just want to wake up and hear your reassuring voice."

Wheldon left behind two young sons, 2-year-old Sebastian and 7-month-old Oliver. They were on hand for the service. Close friends and family members left the church and rode to the cemetery. Mourners filled the church, then watched Franchitti, Dixon, Kanaan and Wheldon's three brothers load the casket.

Team owners Chip Ganassi and Roger Penske attended the service, along with just about every IndyCar driver as well as some from other racing series.

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Hendrick sweeps front row

TALLADEGA, Ala. -- For the first time since Wheldon's fatal accident, the focus was back on the race track.

Hendrick Motorsports proved Saturday it has the best superspeedway program in NASCAR with a sweep of the front row in qualifying at Talladega.

Mark Martin won the pole with a lap of 181.367 mph, just a tick faster than the 181.360 posted by five-time defending champion Jimmie Johnson. Hendrick Motorsports now has won the pole at all four superspeedway races this season, and swept the front row in all but one.

"Our qualifying on (restrictor) plate tracks this season has just been amazing," said Johnson.

Martin began his post-qualifying news conference on a somber note, encouraging fans to visit the web site dedicated to Wheldon. Today's race at Talladega (2 p.m., ESPN) is the first major event since the two-time Indianapolis 500 winner was killed in the IndyCar season finale at Las Vegas last Sunday.

NASCAR is honoring Wheldon with decals on its cars that display the Lionheart Knight image that Wheldon affixed to the back of his helmets, as well as a moment of silence before the start of the race.

When the green flag drops, though, the drivers will have pushed Wheldon from their minds to focus on racing on NASCAR's fastest and biggest track. There's a championship on the line, too, and Johnson has a huge hole to climb from if he's to have any shot at winning a sixth consecutive title.

A nasty accident last Saturday at Charlotte dropped Johnson from third to eighth in the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship standings, and with five races remaining, he's got to climb out of a 35-point deficit. But, Johnson won here in April, when teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr. pushed him to the victory.

As Johnson made his victory lap that day, his crew chief thanked Earnhardt over the team radio.

But the stakes are too high right now for Johnson to simply agree to pay back the favor: Earnhardt is a distant ninth in the standings.

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