Last weekend, the Sprint Unlimited race proved to be absolutely disastrous, as 14 cars were involved in a massive pileup that made the Daytona International Speedway look more like a destruction derby than a NASCAR race.
The wreck involved more than half the field of 25 cars and put a stop to the entire race while workers tried to clear the track and make it safe to race again. Luckily, no one was seriously injured in that wreck or any of the other wrecks that took place during the race. Denny Hamlin, Jimmie Johnson, Kasey Kahne, and Paul Menard were checked into the infield care clinic but were quickly released.
On Lap 46, Greg Biffle hit the back of Jamie McMurray’s car, causing McMurray to lose control, spin out, and eventually slam into the wall. With so many cars clustered together, other drivers were unable to get out of the way, including Kahne, who saw a pileup like this coming and attempted to take a more conservative approach in the race.
“I was in the back, waiting for something to happen, and once it did, the track was so dirty that I couldn’t slow down enough,” said Kahne.
Luckily, the drivers managed to take it mostly in good spirits.
“I didn’t know I was airborne until I felt it come down. That was pretty good hang time,” said Hamlin.
While such a large wreck certainly made the race a lot more entertaining for viewers, as did the several other smaller ones that took place, it also made things a lot more complicated for the teams involved, partly because Saturday night’s race was an exhibition race and technically part of the preseason. Drivers were going hard after not getting to race in the offseason, but ultimately, the Sprint Unlimited doesn’t count for anything. Wrecking is always going to be a part of motorsports, especially NASCAR and especially at Daytona, but imagine how frustrating it must be to damage your car while running a race that wasn’t going to earn you anything in the first place.
Even with their reputation in racing circles as glorified farm cars, NASCAR vehicles are still engineered to incredibly high standards and aren’t cheap to repair. Moderate damage from a wreck can easily run $30,000, and in the case of a totaled car, building a new one from the ground up pushes well into the six-figure range. For well-heeled teams like Hendrick Motorsports or Joe Gibbs Racing, it’s probably more of an annoyance than anything else, but for teams without $100 million or even $50 million in their yearly budget, the impact of losing a car can be much more serious.
For example, during qualifying, Reed Sorenson was involved in another big wreck that damaged several cars and seriously damaged his own. Unfortunately, Team XTREME racing doesn’t have a backup car, which means Sorenson might not be able to race this weekend if his car isn’t fully repaired. As expensive as traveling, qualifying, and racing are, dropping out of a race because of a damaged car can have a major impact on a team. And sadly, NASCAR is slowly turning into a series in which if you aren’t driving for the few major teams, races are more about avoiding wrecks and not going through too many tires than they are about actually racing.
Even for teams that come with backup cars and can afford the repairs after a wreck, there’s always the risk of driver injury. To drive that point home, February 18 marks the 14th anniversary of Dale Earnhardt’s death at the Daytona 500, in 2001. The cars themselves have gotten significantly safer in the years since Earnhardt’s wreck, but for a race in which a massive wreck is almost a yearly guarantee, it’s disappointing that NASCAR isn’t doing more to ensure that it’s safer for drivers.
Superspeedways like Daytona and Talladega are run at much higher speeds than regular NASCAR tracks, even with restrictor plates mandated to slow the cars down. Because of this, wind resistance plays a much more significant factor than normal, and cars end up competing close together in packs. Driving at nearly 200 miles per hour and often only a couple of inches from other cars, it would be impossible to eliminate all wrecks, but NASCAR could seemingly do more to keep its drivers out of harm’s way.
Perhaps the biggest change that NASCAR could implement for the Daytona 500 would be to return to single-car qualifying. Qualifying in groups is perhaps more entertaining, but it also leads to more wrecks. Sending cars out one at a time would be much safer, and with more drivers making it to the race itself, single-car qualifying would make the Daytona 500 more exciting to watch, as well.
NASCAR may have had its start as a sport for bootleggers — and there’s nothing wrong with it sticking with its blue-collar roots — but there’s a lot more to stock car racing than rednecks and crashes. Believe it or not, attending a race can be incredibly entertaining, even for fans of other types of racing who look down on NASCAR as a sport for hillbillies who can’t do anything other than turn left. There’s more strategy and skill than just mashing the accelerator and going fast, and getting a car ready for a race is an incredible achievement of engineering. It’s hard for that to get through though when most of what the public sees is just a bunch of crashes.
With two more qualifying races this week before the first real race of the season on Sunday, let’s hope that everyone has cooled their jets and that the drivers stay safe for the Daytona 500. If they can avoid a wreck fest like the Sprint Unlimited, you should see some great racing, even if all they do is turn left.
Check out Autos Cheat Sheet on Facebook