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Two-time Indianapolis 500 champion Dan Wheldon was killed in a 15-car accident Sunday at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. When asked the next day about the accident, Johnson said ovals were not safe for IndyCars and the series should abandon them.
"I have a lot of friends that race in that series, and I'd just rather see them on street circuits and road courses. No more oval," Johnson said Monday.
His comment led to an angry backlash from fans who believed Johnson has no business weighing in on another series. Mario Andretti and A.J. Foyt also rebuked Johnson, with Foyt telling USA Today that Johnson was "pretty stupid to make a statement like that.
"You could say the same about stock cars. I've driven both, and I've been hurt real bad in both," Foyt told USA Today.
Andretti called Johnson on Wednesday to discuss it, and Johnson clarified that he should have been specific about high-banked ovals. Las Vegas has progressive banking, and many IndyCar drivers expressed concern about racing on that kind of track.
Johnson called Foyt after he spoke to Andretti and said he's also had conversations with Dario Franchitti, Danica Patrick, Tony Kanaan, Will Power, Oriol Servia, Paul Tracy, Marco Andretti and IndyCar chairman Randy Bernard about his comments. He said all understood what he meant, and all supported him.
Most drivers have said very little since Sunday's accident, and Johnson said many expressed hope that the focus will be returned to Wheldon as his family prepares for his funeral.
Juan Pablo Montoya, a former Indianapolis 500 winner who now drives in NASCAR, echoed that sentiment Wednesday.
"I think people really have to forget about that," Montoya said in Miami. "Now with the social media and everything anybody's opinion really counts. And I think the only opinion that really matters right now is the one where we worry about Dan and his family. Let's let IndyCar deal with their problems."
Johnson did receive some support from former open-wheel driver AJ Allmendinger, who last weekend announced he was starting an IndyCar team next season. Now a NASCAR driver, Allemendinger raced at Las Vegas in the Champ Car Series before the track was reconfigured to add its banking.
"People have spoken out, does Vegas need to be safer? The chain link fences? I'm sorry, nothing was going to save (Wheldon)," Allmendinger said on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio. "You go flipping into the wall at 225 (mph), you're not going to live through that. And it's just tragic ... it's heartbreaking.
"And it just doesn't need to happen. They don't need to be on those racetracks. Smaller ovals, they can still keep those. You can still keep Indy because it is tradition, and (at) Indy you're not running three, four wide. But you cannot have Talladega Superspeedway (style) racing with an IndyCar at Vegas or Texas. It finally happened, and hopefully something changes."
Johnson said the accident gives all forms of motorsports a chance to band together for the sake of safety improvements.
"Motor sports needs IndyCar. NASCAR needs IndyCar. The (IndyCar series) was heading in a great direction," Johnson said. "We need to figure out as a group how to make racing safer. We've got a lot of smart people, and we can all pool together and make motorsports smarter."
AP Sports Writer Tim Reynolds contributed to this report from Miami, Fla.