More than 12 years after Dale Earnhardt's death at the 2001 Daytona 500 finally put NASCAR and every other racing body on high alert to solve the awful consequences of racing machines hitting unmovable objects, this shouldn't even a be an issue. Nowhere, on any NASCAR track, should a driver spinning out of control have any opportunity to hit a wall or barrier that isn't capable of absorbing an impact. Otherwise, NASCAR's long-standing policy of encouraging contact and aggressive racing is damn near Machiavellian.
We know the risks and we know how to eliminate them, that policy effectively says, but we're not taking steps to remove all of them.
Hamlin found one of those unprotected areas at Auto Club Speedway Sunday after a running feud with Joey Logano manifested to a form of bumper corners on the final lap of Sunday's race. Logano hit Hamlin as the pair battled for the win, and Hamlin ultimately lost control. He slid off the corner, down the track and head-on into a wall angled for access to the infield section of ACS' road course. The head-first and jarring impact smashed the front end of Hamlin's car and leapt the rear of the car several feet off the ground.
Hamlin struggled to get out of the car initially on his own before immediately collapsing to the ground in pain. He was placed on a stretcher and later taken by helicopter to the hospital.
Undoubtedly, Hamlin avoided further injury thanks to a car that's been developed by NASCAR for increased safety. The driver safety elements like the required head restraints and form-fitting molded seats that keep a driver in place certainly played a crucial role in Hamlin's total health. But, again, why is NASCAR still playing on a field with areas that have proven unsafe? Why can Hamlin – or any driver for that fact – hit a concrete wall that isn't reducing the crash load?
A big factor, obviously, is cash. SAFER Barriers, proven to be the most effective, safest and durable form of walls that can absorb a blow from a 3,000-pound machine, aren't cheap. Terry Blount of ESPN wrote in 2011 that a half-mile of the metal wall with foam backing absorbers costs $1.3 million.
That shouldn't be an issue where Hamlin hit, though. ACS doesn't need a SAFER Barrier in that location because it's far away from the typical racing groove. A merit of the SAFER system is that it holds together and doesn't spew its contents into a racing line, potentially making a dangerous system even more dangerous. That makes it perfect for being placed on an outside wall, along a racing groove.
Instead, ACS could just as easily place stacks of used tires (already in use arounds its road course) or foam barriers in front of the concrete at the location where Hamlin hit and every other bad angle a car could reach. Looking at an aerial view of the track, I count at least eight walls at that track that could stand to be insulated from oval track impacts. Such an addition wouldn't come close to the cost of SAFER Barriers and would prove easily reconfigurable for other events hosted there.
That said, SAFER Barriers lining the frontstretch and backstretch walls at ACS and every other Sprint Cup track need to be a high priority now, too.
Blaming the track for Hamlin's crash isn't the correct course, though. Tracks do what they are required by NASCAR or any other racing sanctioning body to host an event, as long as its within reach. Take the case of Rockingham Speedway, where NASCAR only considered a return with the Camping World Truck Series once former driver turned track owner Andy Hillenburg had placed SAFER Barriers around the track.
NASCAR sanctions the speedways where it races. Catch fences, SAFER barriers along outside corner walls, emergency response and about a thousand other things are required by each participating venue to be deemed fit for racing. The buck in this situation, once again, stops at the desk of those in Daytona Beach where proactive track safety work seems to be lagging.
In 2008, Jeff Gordon walloped an unprotected and dangerously flared inside wall at Las Vegas hard enough to remove the entire engine from his No. 24. Las Vegas made changes while other tracks vowed to review their designs. Few, if any, other tracks made significant improvements.
In 2010, Elliott Sadler found a vicious impact point at Pocono in another engine-removing hit. Pocono made substantial changes before the next race at a big expense, but the series-wide reaction was tame at best and resulted in no earth-moving shifts.
And just last season, Mark Martin narrowly avoided certain injury and potentially worse when he spun and hit the unprotected edge of the pit wall in a garage opening at Michigan International Speedway. The wall impaled Martin's car just inches behind the drivers seat. Major changes to the obviously dangerous and flawed design have yet to be made or required by NASCAR, as I saw standing at a similar wall opening at Daytona International Speedway in February.
There are a litany of the same types of dangers at tracks across the sport. Most just haven't been exposed yet. It's high time for NASCAR to prioritize solutions to these obvious design flaws and dangers.
HOT: Before we get any further, let's make this clear: Tony Stewart's on-camera interview that FOX showed several minutes and several overdubs after the fact may well be the best string of sentences he's ever uttered publicly. Somewhere, there's a pirate smiling and nodding approvingly.
NOT: Making clear, part II: While Stewart's words were hilarious and immediately carried several "I second that!" from various fellow drivers on Twitter, he couldn't have been more wrong in his assessment. Did Logano block him? You bet. But that didn't cause Stewart to finish 22nd. Bossman Jay Hart called him a hypocrite in this fine assessment, and I couldn't agree more. We should probably include his block in this year's Sprint Unlimited that triggered a multi-car crash in the list of times Stewart has been the exact driver he's bemoaning.
NOT: Making clear, part III: It's fairly evident that Logano had no idea Hamlin was hurt from their incident on the last lap when he was first interviewed by FOX. Don't perceive Logano's "that's what he gets" line to mean Logano wanted Hamlin hurt. He was instead referring to Hamlin receiving rough driving from Logano in return for the Bristol incident.
HOT: Making clear, part IV: There was nothing wrong with Logano getting into Hamlin in the final corner on the final lap of Sunday's race. It wasn't a premeditated decision to wreck. It was merely being defensive and scrambling for the win. Would Logano be as aggressive with a driver not named Denny? It's possible. But Logano didn't break any rules or show horrible restraint on Sunday's last lap. He was racing for the win – even if he was carrying a rather large chip on his shoulder.
HOT: How slick was Kyle Busch's coy move to slide by Hamlin and Logano? He could have easily been a third wheel to their wreck. And if Hamlin and Logano hadn't wrecked? It sure looked like Busch was at the very least going to be on the outside of a three-wide duel to the finish line.
NEUTRAL: Brad Keselowski lost ground late in Sunday's race as his engine began overheating and finished 23rd. Logano, even though he wound up third, began to show similar issues late in the race. Is that cause for concern in the Roush-Yates Ford engine camp, or just a one-time issue?
HOT: Why were the final few laps of Sunday's race the best we've ever seen at Auto Club Speedway? There are two reasons. First, the pavement has finally aged to a point where there isn't a single groove that's exclusively faster. That gives drivers the freedom to move around and at least try to avoid the dreaded aero push that comes with following a lead car.
Second, Hamlin's tires were upwards of 20 laps newer than Logano's. Because the tires actually gave up grip and speed over a run, Hamlin also had a bit of an advantage even when his car got close to Logano's. Together, the pair slowed each other enough to give Kyle Busch one last go at taking back the lead. It was great racing.
NEUTRAL: Jimmie Johnson finished 12th Sunday at Auto Club to mark his worst finish there since a 16th in 2005. But don't worry Jimmie fans: he has the best average position, most laps in the top-15 and highest driver rating of all Sprint Cup drivers five races in to 2013.
NOT: The car Danica Patrick is driving is probably more capable than her finish of 26th, right? I'm not expecting the world from her during her first Sprint Cup campaign, but at some point she needs to some speed – not just the ability to move up due to the attrition of others.
HOT: So Dale Earnhardt Jr., not interviewed after the race thanks to the last-lap shenanigans, is again the NASCAR Sprint Cup points leader with his second-place finish. His average finish after five races? A sterling 4.4.
HOT: Paul Menard scored another top-10 Sunday, and now leads everyone else in the Richard Childress Racing camp by at least seven spots and 24 points in the current standings after five races.
The Stenica Showdown Cup!
We're keeping track each week of how NASCAR's most important (only?) competitive couple does against one another. This is a best-of-36 race, with the highest-finishing Sprint Cup result between Danica Patrick and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. each week earning a point. Other points may be earned for various and completely inane reasons along the way (suggestions accepted), and the game ends if the couple uncouples.
1st - Ricky Stenhouse Jr., 4 points (20th at Auto Club)
2nd - Danica Patrick., 1 point (26th at Auto Club)
Five races in, and I'm seriously doubting Danica's ability to overcome this deficit. Will she turn to underhanded ways? For our sake, I hope so. Evil Danica could be a thing, ya know?
Next up: Martinsville. Join us in TWO weeks on the Yahoo! Sports NASCAR Live Chat at 1 p.m. ET.
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