Patrick paying tribute to Wheldon in NASCAR race

Danica Patrick will pay tribute to the memory of two-time Indianapolis 500 champion Dan Wheldon with a special paint scheme on the hood of her NASCAR Nationwide Series car at Texas.

Patrick, who is moving full-time to NASCAR next season, is racing Saturday for the first time since the IndyCar Series finale at Las Vegas three weeks ago. That's when Wheldon was killed in a fiery 15-car crash.

"It was nice to be able to get in the car, but it was really nice to just have a couple of weeks off, and create some space between that weekend and those emotions," Patrick said after practice Friday.

The hood of Patrick's No. 7 Chevrolet this weekend will have an enlarged Lionheart Knight image like the one Wheldon had on the back of his helmets.

"It feels comforting, in a way, to be honest. I kind of feel like I have a little angel," Patrick said. "When they pop the hood open to work on the car, that's all I have to stare at while I'm sitting in my car waiting for changes. It's a cool thing."

Patrick also will wear a specially designed helmet honoring Wheldon, and it will be auctioned after the race for the Dan Wheldon Memorial Fund. She also is donating her prize money this weekend to the fund.

A 2007 IndyCar race at Texas was promoted by track officials as "Rumble at the Speedway" because it came a week after a pit road confrontation at Milwaukee when Patrick grabbed Wheldon's arm, voiced her complaint about their on-track collision and pushed him as he started to walk away without responding to her.

At the end of the prerace introduction of drivers, the ding of a bell preceded an announcement asking if everybody was ready for the rumble. The theme music from "Rocky" was played.

Two years earlier, Wheldon came to Texas after his first Indianapolis 500 victory, the same race when Patrick finished fourth. On race day in Texas, with so much attention on Patrick, Wheldon went to the drivers' meeting wearing a T-shirt that read — Actually "Won" The Indy 500.

That was part of the competitive spirit between the two drivers, who got along fine.

Patrick was teammates on the Rahal Letterman Racing team with Paul Dana when the rookie driver got killed in a warmup session at Homestead-Miami Speedway in 2006.

"As a result, we stopped doing morning warmups like that. That was a good change," Patrick said.

She's optimistic that safety improvements will come from this latest tragedy.

"It's terrible, and it's nothing anybody wants to happen," she said. "Hopefully, everyone can learn and be better for it, and be safer from it."

Patrick said she has always felt safer in NASCAR than in the open-wheel cars with open cockpits.

"That doesn't mean there can't be big accidents and things that can happen," she said. "Being covered like that, there is definitely a level of comfort, so I'm pleased to have a roof over my head this weekend."

Still, she insisted that nothing has changed her feelings about the possibility of driving in the Indy 500 again.

"Yeah, absolutely I'd love to do Indy," she said. "It's the greatest race in the world. I have so many feelings, emotions and memories and I still feel like I have memories to create."