Kasey Kahne woke up Monday thinking about Dan Wheldon and the wrenching pain felt by the late two-time Indianapolis 500 champion's family and friends.
Kahne didn't spend a moment thinking that it could have been him — even though the NASCAR driver seriously had considered entering the Izod IndyCar Series season finale in which Wheldon died in Sunday's 15-car accident at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
"You can never think about if something like that would have happened," said Kahne, one of a handful of drivers IndyCar CEO Randy Bernard had sought for the $5 million Vegas challenge that Wheldon eventually accepted. "You have no control over it. I don't even think about that."
Resignation, resilience and respect for a death-defying way of life were among the themes Monday at Charlotte Motor Speedway, where a dozen NASCAR drivers were testing an electronic fuel-injection system while wrestling with the raw emotions of Wheldon's death.
"Sometimes, we forget how dangerous it is," said Jeff Burton, who has been an outspoken leader on NASCAR safety. "Racers have a 'that-can't-happen-to-me' mentality. For me and everyone I know, getting in the car, as silly as it sounds, is the medicine we want."
Though he never raced stock cars, Wheldon befriended many in NASCAR and once shared a sponsor (National Guard) with its most popular driver. But though Dale Earnhardt Jr. worked with Wheldon many times, he said it wasn't hard to return to his No. 88 Chevrolet.
"I drive race cars for a living; it's a dangerous thing," said Earnhardt, whose father died on a last-lap crash in the 2001 Daytona 500. "It can never be safe enough, but I like my chances."
Five-time defending Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson, another friend of Wheldon's who was "torn up" while staring blankly at TV coverage of the crash Sunday for two hours, said "the risk factor of driving an open-wheel car is multiplied by 10" — even with NASCAR heading to treacherous Talladega Superspeedway this weekend.
"NASCAR has worked hard to keep speeds down," he said. "Yes, we have seen a few airborne (cars) lately, but we don't have those types of crashes (like Wheldon's). Talladega has its risks, but I just don't see our cars having the same issues. We have the potential, but I don't see the chances anywhere in the ballpark as the open-wheel cars."
Though saying a risk-free NASCAR "never can be reached," Burton said, "There's no question our sport is as safe as it's ever been. There's also no question there are still things out there that have to be fixed."
NASCAR vice president of competition Robin Pemberton said the sanctioning body's Research and Development Center would study Wheldon's wreck, noting that NASCAR and other racing circuits constantly share safety data.
"You never come far enough (with safety)," Pemberton said. "We work on it every day. You never quit."