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Published: Friday, 7/13/2007

IRL's Wheldon enjoys being star

BY RYAN AUTULLO
BLADE SPORTS WRITER

Dan Wheldon can be considered a nuisance by the purists in racing while simultaneously serving as a welcomed breath of fresh air to those with thicker skin.

He has been dubbed "Difficult Dan" because he uses a filter only for his race car and not his mouth.

In other words, Wheldon, the colorful and brash native of England, has a superstar image. But he competes in the IndyCar Series, and even though he is one of its best drivers, Wheldon doesn't have the same fame as someone like Tony Stewart, NASCAR's version of loud and boisterous.

Wheldon, as he is with most topics, is open about discussing a possible switch to NASCAR. But the 2005 Indy Series champion extends a caution flag: Does the benefit of fame and glory in NASCAR outweigh the potential cost of leaving an avenue where he has experienced great success?

"If you can perform well off the bat, with NASCAR being so big, you could be incredibly big," Wheldon said yesterday from Nashville, where he will compete in this weekend's Firestone 200.

Wheldon, regardless of one's opinion of him, would likely be a major marketing chip for any organization he's involved with. His unconventional demeanor and eccentric lifestyle - he owns about 350 pair of shoes and wishes to install a plasma TV in every room of his house, including the bathroom - would make Wheldon a perfect fit in the ever-evolving Nextel Cup series.

"Nobody would deny that NASCAR is the biggest stage, not only in America but in the world," said Wheldon, who sits fourth in the IndyCar series standings. "Performing well in NASCAR, I'd probably be a bigger star than performing well in IndyCar. That's no disrespect to IndyCar, but right now that's just a fact that NASCAR is so big."

Wheldon clearly enjoys the rock star lifestyle. He spent Wednesday evening in Hollywood at the annual ESPY Awards.

"It's a great event. To be in that environment with that many great athletes is always something to enjoy," Wheldon said.

Asked to rate the performance of Cleveland Cavaliers star Le-

Bron James, who co-hosted the event which airs at 9 p.m. Sunday on ESPN, Wheldon replied:

"I think LeBron did a fantastic job of hosting with Jimmy Kimmel. He was very, very good."

Wheldon wasn't as complimentary about fellow drivers Tony Kanaan and Sam Hornish Jr., who made headlines this week for sparking a post-race fight Sunday at Watkins Glen that also included Hornish's father and Kanaan's crew chief among others.

The Indy Racing League fined both drivers and placed them on probation for the remainder of the year. The racers' respective teams were also fined and put on probation, and Sam Hornish Sr. was suspended from pit lane for this weekend's race.

Wheldon, himself recently involved in a war of words with female racer Danica Patrick, doesn't like to see controversy in the sport but understands that negative publicity is still publicity.

"If there's people that aspire to be like us, we can give a better example, but at the same time you don't want to be like robots," Wheldon said. "You have to show emotion because that's what the sport is all about."

Contact Ryan Autullo at:

rautullo@theblade.com.



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