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Wheldon death cast shadow on Indy season opener

By Steve Keating

ST. PETERSBURG, Florida (Reuters) - After months of mourning, IndyCar drivers returned to work on Sunday but the series-opener brought little closure as Dan Wheldon's death continued to weigh heavily on the sport.

Normally a time of excitement, the buildup to the 2012 campaign was a somber one as drivers and fans struggled to come to grips with the passing of the two-time Indianapolis 500 winner.

"That wound is still fresh," said American Ryan Hunter-Reay after taking third in the opener.

"He (Wheldon) is the defending 500 champion, he's a champion in our sport, I don't think it is going to go away."

Killed in a horrific multi-car crash at the IndyCar season finale at Las Vegas Motor Speedway last October, the season-opener through the streets of St. Petersburg was expected to lift the dark cloud that had hung over the series for months.

But from the green flag to the checkered there was no escaping the memory of the hugely popular Englishman.

Holly Wheldon, Dan Wheldon's sister, waved the green flag to start the new season and every one of the 100 laps drivers sped past Dan Wheldon Way, part of the temporary street circuit renamed in his honor.

The season-opener began with a pre-race tribute to Wheldon, who was a winner in St. Petersburg in 2005 and made nearby Tampa his American home, while several drivers donned helmets decorated with memories of the man they nicknamed 'Lionheart'.

Each of the 26 cars on the starting grid carried a reminder of Wheldon, the Dallara chassis branded with a DW12, in recognition of Wheldon, who was involved in extensive testing and development of what was hailed as the IndyCar of the Future.

Brazilian Helio Castroneves claimed victory for a third time and celebrated with an emotional tribute, stopping his car in Corner 10, then running across the track and scaling the safety fence to pat the Dan Wheldon Way sign.

"We still hurt but we have to keep moving on, that's nature, that's life," an emotional Castroneve told reporters. "As soon as I got there I felt touched, to see his name there."

While Wheldon's death had a tremendous emotional toll on the series and motor racing fans, it is the loss of Danica Patrick to NASCAR that could have a bigger long term impact on the series.

Although Patrick had won only once on the circuit, she was IndyCar's most popular and marketable commodity and now the search is on to find a charismatic figure to fill that void.

"No sport wants to be in a position where it loses a major person that can have a positive increase on your sport," IndyCar CEO Randy Bernard told Reuters. "Danica is a great role model but the one thing she didn't do was win week in and week out.

"I think she will do a fantastic job in NASCAR but at some point she is going to have to win. Americans love winners."

With Patrick no longer hogging the IndyCar spotlight other drivers will have an opportunity to take centre stage.

Coming off his worst season ever in IndyCar, Castroneves, a three-time Indy 500 winner, could re-emerge as the face of the franchise while Patrick's replacement in the Go Daddy car, Canadian James Hinchcliffe is charismatic and viewed as a future series champion.

Rubens Barrichello, the most experienced driver in Formula One who made his IndyCar debut on Sunday will bring credibility and 1.5 million Twitter followers to the series, but it remains to be seen if the popular Brazilian can be a success both on and off the track.

Barrichello spent 19 seasons in Formula One starting a record 322 races but is an IndyCar rookie and a 17th place finish on Sunday indicates he faces a steep learning curve.

"To be very honest I was happy that I got so much better in the race but the frustrating thing was I was in safe mode for the whole race," Barrichello told Reuters.

"I wasn't allowed to push all the way through and I feel like that in America I will have to learn how to deal with it because you're going to win races much more on the strategy than actually pushing.

"I want to push. I want to go flat out and today was safe, safe, safe all the way."

(Editing by Julian Linden)