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Wheeler exists stage left in subdued ending to storied career

CONCORD, N.C. - Long after Kasey Kahne crossed the finish line, the fireworks finished and the last of the fans finally began their slow exit from the grandstands. The lights at Lowe's Motor Speedway flipped off, and Humpy Wheeler exited stage left.

There was no grand final bow. Humpy wanted his last moments at the speedway to be about another great show.

He got his wish as Kahne outlasted several NASCAR heavyweights in a last-man-standing fight to the finish. For Wheeler, an amateur boxing champion, it was a fitting close to the 33 years he'd spent promoting events at the track he'd dubbed ""The Beast of the Southeast.'

But Wheeler deserved so much more.

He'd spent most of his adult life working tirelessly to sell tickets for the centerpiece track in owner Bruton Smith's showcase of speedways. It was never the sparkling showplace like the track Smith has in Las Vegas, the destination spot in Sonoma, Calif., or the action-packed Bristol Motor Speedway, where an opening on the season ticket list is like winning the lottery.

Nope, Wheeler had to work to push the nearly 50-year-old track. In doing so, he brought attention to NASCAR and its stars at a time when racing was still a sideshow to the traditional stick-and-ball sports.

He used a flair for the dramatic to draw attention to the track and the sport story lines, falling back on over-the-top stunts that required a dead shark, infield explosions, school bus races and Wheeler even once sticking his head into the mouth of a live tiger.

""He's just constantly pushing the envelope,' said four-time series champion Jeff Gordon. ""All the creativity and excitement and entertainment he's brought for the competitors, as well as for the fans, is definitely going to be his legacy.

""I've never thought of this sport or Lowe's Motor Speedway without Humpy Wheeler.'

Now the show will go on without Wheeler, who abruptly announced his retirement as president of LMS last Wednesday in a hastily called news conference that raised more questions than answers.

No one can say they didn't see Wheeler's announcement coming sometime in the near future. He'd been off his game all year, sitting quietly by as Wheeler protege Eddie Gossage laid claim from Texas to the title of NASCAR's most outrageous promoter. The twinkle in his eye had disappeared, and Wheeler was no longer having the time of his life in tirelessly selling tickets.

But the 69-year-old Wheeler deserved to go out his way, on his terms, and when he was ready.

Yet something happened in the six months since Wheeler privately floated the retirement idea past his longtime boss. Smith was prepared to let Wheeler do it his way - as long as it was this coming Wednesday, long after the show had packed up and moved on to the next town.

Instead, the former South Carolina football player pulled an end-around and announced it himself a full week ahead of schedule.

Conspicuously absent was the 81-year-old Smith, who later offered only backhanded compliments in his assessment of Wheeler's devotion to LMS and all the Speedway Motorsports properties.

But that wasn't really a surprise. Wheeler had seemed to distance himself of late from a handful of Smith's manic episodes, including an incident last fall when he steamrolled over the city of Concord after officials tried to oppose the building of a drag strip.

As the days wound down to Wheeler's final Coca-Cola 600, a schism was revealed that cut so deep, two men who have worked side-by-side for more than three decades would not be seen publicly in the same room together.

Wheeler skipped Smith's Thursday announcement that SMI was purchasing Kentucky Speedway, and Smith was a no-show at a heartfelt send-off from NASCAR and lengthy standing ovation at the driver meeting.