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Dan Wheldon rolling the dice in Vegas

LAS VEGAS -- For many years, Indy car fans have been set up for disappointment by prospective events that never saw the light of day.

Remember CART's $10 million Hawaiian Super Prix? I've still got the press kit.

How about Champ Car's efforts to stage races in Korea and/or China? No stamps in my passport from either of those places.

Or alternate bodywork for the 2012 "Indy car of tomorrow?" Oops, that's off topic and a cheap shot on my part.

But it's fair to say that a great deal of skepticism has accompanied what has become known as the GoDaddy IndyCar Challenge Bonus.

INDYCAR CEO Randy Bernard's original plan was to offer five non-Indy car drivers the opportunity to compete in the Izod IndyCar Series finale at Las Vegas Motor Speedway (Sunday, 3 p.m. ET, ABC), with a prize of $5 million up for grabs for any of them who could win the race.

Problem is, there just wasn't that much interest in the offer. And where there was interest, logistical or contractual issues prevented those drivers from accepting the challenge.

Formula One is racing this weekend -- ironically, in Korea, where F1 supremo Bernie Ecclestone was able to push through an event after a decade of failure by American open-wheel racing. This week's NASCAR Sprint Cup race is on Saturday night, theoretically opening the door for Cup driver participation. But contracts and common sense will keep the NASCAR set safely in Charlotte on Sunday.

Bernard insisted that whoever runs against the IndyCar regulars in Las Vegas needed to "move the needle," and without NASCAR or F1 stars, that didn't leave much of a pool of talent.

"We have the fastest, most versatile race car drivers in the world, and last March we threw a challenge out there to any race car driver on this planet that thought that they could beat the Izod IndyCar drivers to come to Vegas," Bernard said. "We said if they can win that race, we'd give them $5 million, but no one chose to make that decision to go forward with it.

"We had two dozen inquiries about the opportunity, we had six sign up with applications, and we had many others call and inquire about it,"
Bernard continued. "But the only three that we felt had a serious opportunity to help drive millions of new fans to our sport that could be showcased as great, successful drivers were Travis Pastrana, Alex Zanardi and Kasey Kahne."

But INDYCAR couldn't secure any of the three top choices. Kahne insisted on driving for Team Penske, and paraplegic Zanardi only considered participating if his modified car was fielded by Target Chip Ganassi Racing. With Penske and Ganassi in the midst of a heated championship battle with drivers Will Power and Dario Franchitti, neither team wanted to deal with the distraction of an extra entry there purely for publicity.

Pastrana, with very little open-wheel or oval racing experience, was the most intriguing prospect. But the X-Games star broke his ankle during a July 28 Moto X stunt, putting his car racing aspirations on hold for the foreseeable future.

"I want to thank all three of them because they all had a lot of interest in this, and we felt that it was a lot of fun just getting to visit with them about this and try to make it happen," Bernard said.
"We had a lot of buzz, a lot of interest about this $5 million challenge. So we felt we should try to go on and try a new challenge within the sport."

The semi-contrived result is that surprise Indianapolis 500 winner Dan Wheldon will return to action with a chance to split $5 million with a fan, provided that Wheldon drives his Bryan Herta Autosport/Sam Schmidt Motorsport entry through the 34-car field to win the Las Vegas race.

The Indianapolis 500 was the only race Wheldon and BHA competed in this year, and Wheldon's emergence as the race winner after rookie JR Hildebrand crashed out of the lead on the final corner of the last lap was one of the most remarkable sports stories in America this year.

"I've been just desperate, period, to get back in a race car since Indianapolis," said Wheldon, who since Indy has pitched in as a color commentator on Versus IndyCar Series coverage and served as the test and development driver for the 2012 Indy car prototype. "It's going to be hard -- though I have actually started last when I got loose in qualifying at Richmond when I was driving for Michael Andretti's team and came through and won.

"What you can't forget is there's a World Championship going on, and Dario Franchitti and Will Power have been battling that out nonstop,"
he added. "So I think there's going to be a lot of exciting elements to Vegas. There is going to hopefully be a lot of rich people at the end of it, whether it be the $5 million or the champion, and I do hope the collaboration with Sam Schmidt and Bryan Herta Autosport makes us richer and a fan richer."

Several retired Indy car drivers were considered for participation, including Rick Mears, Al Unser Jr. and Michael and Mario Andretti. But all were wise enough to realize their best days in a car were behind them.

"People were asking me about it, and to be honest, the thought did go across my mind," admitted Michael Andretti, whose last race as a driver was the 2007 Indianapolis 500. "Then I got smart real quick. It would have been too much for me to do and I'm just not in shape, being out of the car this long, to expect to go and be competitive with the talent that we have in this field today."

You can be sure that car is going to be fast again. Combine that with Dan's great feel for these 1.5-mile tracks and where the limit is, and I think he's got a really good chance -- even from the back.

-- Dario Franchitti on Dan Wheldon

The No. 77 car that Wheldon will drive at Las Vegas has certainly shown plenty of speed this year. Alex Tagliani drove it to pole position at Indianapolis and Texas Motor Speedway.

Oddly, Tagliani will be driving the No. 98 car that Wheldon won the Indianapolis 500 in this weekend. But one top Indy car driver believes that Wheldon will be a threat to win in whatever car he's in.

"You can be sure that car is going to be fast again," said three-time series champion Franchitti. "Combine that with Dan's great feel for these 1.5-mile tracks and where the limit is, and I think he's got a really good chance -- even from the back."

Bernard hopes that the real winner on the day is the IndyCar Series.
The Las Vegas race is essentially being self-promoted; INDYCAR has rented the track and Bernard has secured a large number of secondary sponsors, though a title sponsor proved elusive.

With many oval track promoters struggling to fill the stands and afford the sanction fee for an Indy car race, the self-promoted Vegas event is in many ways a trial run for a future oval track business model for Bernard and INDYCAR.

"I would like to think that every driver is going to benefit from this significantly if we can move the dial on the ratings," Bernard remarked. "I think I even told someone I'd resign if we didn't triple the [television] rating.

"If we can do that, every driver will see positive momentum, every team owner will, and the series will. We're here to do one thing, and that's continue to push viewership and our fan base upwards."

Bernard is hoping that a spectacular display from Wheldon will be just the ticket to do that.

"Thank you for the opportunity," Wheldon responded. "But please don't expect any flips like Travis Pastrana does because I'm not into that.

"I'm going to keep it on all four."

John Oreovicz covers open-wheel racing for ESPN.com.