Hot/Not: Concerted safety efforts can make a difference

We'll make no bones about it: This was a dark, dark weekend for auto racing. But life continues on, and so must our analysis of the weekend that was for racing as a whole. But first, I'd like to pass along my most sincere condolences to the family and friends of Dan Wheldon.

Wheldon's tragic death after a crash in the early laps of Sunday's IndyCar season finale is still making news, as more and more mainstream media start to air their (often) misguided assertions for what IndyCar should and shouldn't do in its wake. Accusations that racing as a whole is too brash for its own good or is too cavalier in turning a blind eye to safety are patently false, however. This isn't a sport that thrives on making things dangerous, or thrives on drivers getting hurt. Those are the exact things that undermine it — a point known by everyone in and out of the garage.

Regardless, it's been a horrific set of days and hours since the incident as the racing world tries to come to grips with Wheldon really being gone. If we've learned anything in the previous 10 years of racing safety evolution, it's that IndyCar has been served with the same daunting task that NASCAR faced in 2001 after the death of Dale Earnhardt. Mind you, I'm not calling this an opportunity. Doing so would be the ultimate disrespect to Wheldon's life and family — no one should be required to die in the interest of future improvement.

Such, however, are the cruel cards that IndyCar has been dealt. It has to respond. It's the response, ultimately, that allowed Jimmie Johnson to walk away sore but unscathed from his huge, head-on hit Saturday night at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

In an impact eerily similar to the one that claimed the life of Earnhardt, Johnson got loose, drove to the apron and hooked back toward a nose-first impact in the Turn 2 CMS wall. In that situation, it's the massive deceleration of the car and its driving occupant that presents the most danger. Johnson experienced every bit of that and still walked away. That's a credit to NASCAR's safety work.

First and foremost in Johnson's equation was the presence of the SAFER (Steel and Foam Energy Reduction) Barrier. The product, pioneered by IndyCar and Indianapolis Motor Speedway, flexes to absorb impact instead of a typical concrete wall sending the entire collision energy into the car and occupant.

Johnson also was aided by his HANS device, a harness mandated by NASCAR in October 2001 that prevents the whipping motion of the head in a crash. And don't discount the work done to build safer seats — shock-absorbing carbon-fiber that is molded to a driver's body — or seat belts to hold a driver in place.

These innovations certainly haven't been specific to NASCAR or even pioneered by those in that specific series. The combination of them plus their mandated use by sanctioning body officials, however, proved to make a sizable difference in Johnson's post-crash condition Saturday night. {ysp:more}

Sadly, each of these devices were in use during Wheldon's crash on Sunday. In fact, they probably played large roles in keeping safe many of the 14 other drivers who were involved in the horrific incident.

The fact that they couldn't save Wheldon, though, prove that the racing world has even more room to expand in making cars and race tracks safe.

It just doesn't feel good to be critical this week, so we're only going to focus on some good performances of the weekend.

HOT: Kudos to Matt Kenseth. All of those who thought he'd be seven points back after five Chase races, please raise your hand. Anyone?

HOT: Richard Petty Motorsports continues to impress. Marcos Ambrose locked in another top 5 with his teammate AJ Allmendinger two spots behind in seventh.

HOT: Denny Hamlin's ninth-place finish Saturday was his best since a ninth at Richmond before the Chase.

HOT: Have we narrowed the Chase field to four drivers? Talladega will naturally throw a wrench in it, but Carl Edwards, Kevin Harvick, Kenseth and Kyle Busch seems like a pretty good bet to make for who will be in it at Homestead.

HOT: The Camping World Truck Series championship just got a lot more interesting after Austin Dillon and James Beuscher had trouble in Saturday's race at Las Vegas. With four races left, seven points separate Dillon, Johnny Sauter and Beuscher.

HOT: Give a hand to the entire ABC/ESPN crew for work in the most trying of circumstances during Sunday's IndyCar race at Las Vegas. No, it wasn't a perfect broadcast. But broadcasts like that never are, as no amount of preparation can make the production or talent team ready for it. They handled it with class, and that's about all you can ask for.

FINAL: Farewell, Mr. Wheldon. Thank you for the joy you brought to so many, especially on some of your greatest days at my home track. The Brickyard will not be the same. Until next time, sir.

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