When reading about Jason Leffler's wreck on Twitter on Wednesday night, the thought that he could have died hardly entered my mind. I've seen cars torn in half, cars crumpled like cheap beer cans, cars whose roofs were stomped flat as if by a giant boot. In every case, the drivers unclipped their safety nets and walked away. Heck of a wreck, thanks to the sponsors, see you guys next week.
It takes a tragedy actually happening to remind us how close we come to tragedy on a regular basis in this sport. And as much as we all love to trash NASCAR, the truth is this: NASCAR's safety program has done exactly what it was supposed to do.
Leffler died racing a sprint car on dirt, and it could be days or weeks, if ever, that we learn what forces conspired to turn a routine race tragic. We can hope that there will be enough data available to determine what went wrong and how to prevent it. We can hope that Leffler's death will, in some way, galvanize short-track racing to redouble its efforts at safety.
That lesson wasn't lost on NASCAR. Twelve years ago, Dale Earnhardt's death fundamentally altered the sport of racing. NASCAR realized that anyone, even its seemingly immortal icon, could die without proper safety equipment and procedure. Yes, that led to the Car of Tomorrow, but that also allowed these men to walk away from these wrecks:
• Michael McDowell's 2008 Texas wreck, in which his car seemed to flip a dozen times.
• Jeff Gordon's 2008 Las Vegas wreck, where he spun straight into an unguarded section of the wall.
• Carl Edwards' 2009 Talladega wreck, in which his car went airborne and ran into the catch fence.
• Elliott Sadler's 2010 Pocono wreck, which ripped the engine right out of his car.
We can't speculate on what could have happened without additional safety procedures, but it's tough to say these guys would have been any better off without the increased protection for both driver and car.
NASCAR does itself no favors in the public-relations arena with its casually applied rules and gossamer-thin skin for criticism. But the sport deserves all the credit it gets, and more, for its safety procedures.
Let's face it: Many of us watch NASCAR for the wrecks, or, more specifically, for the possibility of wrecks. Fans want "exciting racing," and part of what makes racing exciting is seeing drivers test boundaries most of us wouldn't dare cross.
Whatever other missteps it may have taken, NASCAR has made sure that when the racing rolls up to that exciting edge, when the possibility becomes reality, that the drivers are more protected than anyone else on the track. (See: Kyle Larson's 2013 Daytona wreck.)
I admit it – I got complacent about the dangerous side of racing. And I wasn't the only one; in a since-deleted tweet, Parker Kligerman wrote, “4 Race car drivers immortality is a way of life. 1 day we find 1 of us 2 be mortal is a day in which we struggle 2 comprehend.”
There is no bright side to Jason Leffler's passing. There is the realization, though, that over the years, there could have been so many more.
Related coverage on Yahoo! Sports:
• Hot/Not: 'Clarity' for Jimmie Johnson could turn ugly for the competition
• Power Rankings: Jimmie Johnson stands alone
• Kasey Kahne hits panic button entering summer stretch