It was supposed to be Travis Pastrana or Kasey Kahne or Alex Zanardi. Instead, the man racing for $5 million Sunday is Indianapolis 500 winner Dan Wheldon.
"The chances of me potentially winning and splitting the $5 million with a fan is certainly higher than it would have been with the other drivers picked," Wheldon said.
Wheldon has been a staple in the IndyCar Series since 2002, but did not have a regular car or team this year. That opened the door for visionary executive Randy Bernard to let Wheldon take part in a $5 million promotion for any non-regular IndyCar driver at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Wheldon will start in last place on Sunday. If he wins, his team splits $5 million with a fan.
"It's very simple: I'm doing this race to win," said Wheldon. "At the end of the day we don't get anything for second."
What Wheldon adds to the promotion that a bigger pop culture name like Pastrana lacked is a realistic chance to win the race. Sure the 2005 IndyCar points champion has only raced twice this season, but he won the Indianapolis 500 this year and has been very successful at 1.5-mile banked oval tracks -- like the ones in Indianapolis and Las Vegas -- throughout his career.
Rob Edwards, Wheldon's team manager for Sunday's race, said his driver is one of the top three IndyCar drivers in the world on 1.5-mile banked oval tracks.
"He's someone who can rise to the challenge," said Edwards. "And we [as a team] need to rise to the challenge as well."
Edwards admits he had "mixed feelings" about Wheldon replacing his close friend Alex Tagliani in the No. 77 car, but at the end of the day he and the rest of the Sam Schmidt Motorsports team are dedicated to doing their best to give Wheldon a shot at the checkered flag.
"There's a realistic chance for sure," said Edwards. "But the size of the mountain should not be underestimated."
Regardless of whether or not Wheldon can scale the 34-car mountain, he won't be racing for just $5 million. Wheldon's mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease in 2009, and Wheldon was in tears after this year's Indy 500 when he dedicated the victory to his mother. The Alzheimer's Association helmet decal Wheldon wore on that day will be on display again in Las Vegas. He'd like to dedicate a second win to her and raise more awareness about the disease that has affected his family.
"My mother was very much behind my career and still is, so it doesn't matter if I win or come in last, she will always be a part of that," said Wheldon.
But he was quick to add that what he's looking forward to most on Sunday is "winning."