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NASCAR: Balancing Risk With Reason After Austin Dillon's Terrifying Wreck at Daytona

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Austin Dillon No. 3 Daytona Coke Zero 400

Austin Dillon No. 3 Daytona Coke Zero 400

Racing is a risky sport. No matter the size of the SAFER Barrier, the helmet on your head or the strength of the roll cage, safety can only go so far when you’re hitting speeds of 200 miles an hour down the straightaway. It’s been 14 years since NASCAR’s Dale Earnhardt tragedy, the death of “The Intimidator,” but dark moments keep intimidating other racing series, worst nightmares too often becoming reality. Just ask Tony Stewart, whose car struck and killed Kevin Ward Jr. on-track following a sprint car incident last year. Take a look at off-road racing, where Robby Gordon struck and injured a fan last month. Or sneak a peek at IndyCar, which experienced its own tragedy with the death of star Dan Wheldon during its 2011 Las Vegas event and left the open-wheel circuit, one built around the Indy 500, wondering if it should keep on racing oval tracks — period.

Now racers at NASCAR’s top levels are well compensated, like most athletes. They understand the risks associated with what they do. But after yet another ugly Daytona wreck, this one in the wee hours of Monday morning, the near-death experience it created for driver Austin Dillon grew the risks too large for their paycheck. Suddenly, for daredevils whose success is based on confidence in their demeanor, staring five fan injuries in the face became marked with the type of emotion that can kill American motorsports.

Fear.

“That scared the hell out of me,” said Coke Zero 400 winner Dale Earnhardt Jr. His crew, the first to reach Dillon’s wounded No. 3 car, was so shaken up they could care less about the victory.

“It was a frightening moment,” added runner-up Jimmie Johnson, who initially wondered if Dillon even survived.

“[NASCAR] got what they wanted,” eighth-place runner Ryan Newman told USA Today in a fit of frustration. “Cars getting airborne, unsafe drivers, same old stuff. They just don’t listen.”

The trauma expressed by these drivers, both in their faces and words tells you the NASCAR Driver’s Council could be convening for an emergency meeting this week. Will this wreck be the one that has them refusing to race at Daytona and Talladega, the only tracks who use the dreaded restrictor plates without major changes? In NASCAR’s defense, the safety equipment worked exactly like it should, keeping Dillon from serious injury while the catchfence ensured a 3,500-lb stock car wasn’t launched into the stands like a weapon. At the same time, CEO Brian France reiterated Monday there’s only so much the sport can do to minimize the danger.

“It’s a moving target,” he said on SIRIUS XM Radio. “It’s never simple. An accident like last night, boy, it takes your breath away and it should. But that’s auto racing. We’re working on solutions all the time to make racing safer and better.”

To a point, that’s a legitimate statement. The sport’s Research and Development Center will be hard at work on more safety changes, improvements NASCAR hopes to make for this fall’s Chase race at Talladega (the next one with plates). But after 27 years of using restrictor plates, initially a “temporary” solution for high speeds, the drivers are sounding like they’ve had enough. Jeff Gordon called the racing at Daytona a “video game,” only with actual human beings inside the cars risking their lives. Kurt Busch was so exasperated he was willing to take the plates off, running Daytona at a just-as-dangerous 230 miles an hour.

That’s the problem, really; since these plates came into effect, keeping speeds down at NASCAR’s fastest tracks there has been no better solution offered. What you get is drivers unable to escape, trapped together in some type of accordion circus where they’re running three-, four-, even five-wide at times. Unable to put some distance between themselves, it guarantees nearly every mistake will cause a multi-car “Big One” for the ages. Fans love the drama, or at least they did before the number of death-defying wrecks and overall destruction left them guilty, not giddy over this style of racing.

The drivers, who like to at least control their risk, feel helpless, like animals in a cage for entertainment. Who wants to spend their day at work being tortured? Where death could be around every corner? No wonder why the drivers are so upset. Back in 1987, the wreck that brought on plates in the first place tore down the catchfence at Talladega. We’ve seen that fence go down multiple times since then, a strong suggestion plates aren’t the solution but they all keep trotting on out there like a pack of sheep.

“I’m glad I only have one plate race left,” said Gordon Sunday night. “It just created chaos.”

For many others, such uncontrolled chaos has made one more plate race in this sport one too many. NASCAR has gotten plenty of publicity this week, Dillon appearing on NBC’s “Today Show” and trumpeting the excitement combined with their safety initiatives that kept him safe at Daytona. I just hope they realize how fine a line they’re walking; that conversation was far too close to not even happening after that early Monday morning disaster heading to the checkered flag.

Here’s what else to take away from Daytona as we cycle Through The Gears…

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FIRST GEAR: Dillon OK To Race, Breathing A Sigh Of Relief

Dillon, who appeared on a NASCAR teleconference Tuesday talking about his wreck, maintained he’s none the worse for wear. Claiming “he’s been hurt worse in football,” a slightly bruised tailbone and a sore groin are the only remnants from a crash that left his No. 3 car in pieces from the start/finish line all the way through to the entrance of turn 1.

Related: Horrifying Austin Dillon Crash at Daytona (Video)

And how did Dillon’s family, including owner/grandfather Richard Childress react in the aftermath?

“The worst part for family members is you want to let them know you're OK after a wreck through the radio because they're listening, and the radio cord had ripped or something had ripped to make it — I could hear them but they couldn't hear me, so it was one of those deals where I knew they were upset and I felt bad because I couldn't get to them,” Dillon said. “I could hear in their voice, how scared they were, and they were saying, ‘Talk to me, Buddy, talk to me,’ and I couldn't respond to them, so that was just painful.”

Brother Ty, not at the racetrack, also gave Austin a dose of reality when they spoke by phone. The full-time XFINITY Series driver, known for being a “tough guy” was clearly shaken to the point Austin went to watch YouTube and see just how badly the wreck looked to the outside observer.

“You can see where a guy watching it from home not knowing how I was and the pit crew kind of running out to the car,” he said, “It was pretty dramatic right there for 30 seconds, 38 seconds or so.”

So what happens now? Dillon joined a chorus of drivers, including Kevin Harvick, who started the wreck up ahead by hitting Denny Hamlin in the left-rear, in that there need to be changes slowing the cars down in order to keep them from getting in the air. However, the most important point of all is Dillon, Hamlin, Harvick and 40 others will be racing at Kentucky with no one seriously hurt. None of the five fan injuries were serious (all have been treated and released) so NASCAR will now try and move on from one of the most horrific wrecks in their history.

SECOND GEAR: Hendrick, Earnhardt In A League Of Their Own On Plate Tracks

The wreck overshadowed a dominant Daytona performance, again by Hendrick Motorsports and Dale Earnhardt Jr. Earnhardt, who won his second straight plate race ,has now led 195 of his 204 laps this season at Daytona and Talladega. He led a HMS parade that was often 1-2-3-4 during the race as they somehow seemed to squeeze extra horsepower under a rules package that’s supposed to make it impossible.

Perhaps there’s a method to their madness, though. Talladega last fall saw both Earnhardt and Jimmie Johnson lose a bid at advancing in the Chase by being in the wrong position late. Well, it’s hard to put yourself in a bad spot when you have 5-10 more horsepower than the rest of the field, right? You can stay up front, become difficult to pass and settle a playoff-advancing race amongst yourselves. Perhaps the only downside for HMS Monday morning is their two “vulnerable” Chase drivers, Jeff Gordon and Kasey Kahne, remained winless on the season. Gordon especially has struggled for speed at other tracks and would have liked a Chase-clinching victory with his farewell tour ramping up.

THIRD GEAR: Surprise Winners Wind Up Sitting In Garage

Daytona was supposed to be the race where an upset winner emerged from the pack. Last July, it was Aric Almirola of Richard Petty Motorsports and several others positioned themselves as early candidates this time. The problem? All wound up either inside the garage or shuffled back in the closing laps.

Almirola, involved in a mid-race wreck was never a factor (more on that in a moment). Landon Cassill, impressive with his single-car No. 40 effort got shuffled back to 13th by the checkered flag. Justin Allgaier suffered a similar fate, muscled out of line by Kurt Busch during the green-white-checkered finish (he wound up 18th). Casey Mears? He had electrical problems and struggled to simply stay on the lead lap at times during the event. The list goes on and on… Hendrick’s power combined with that poor luck left only 2011 Daytona 500 winner Trevor Bayne as the only surprise contender down the stretch. Bayne wound up ninth, his second top 10 in three races, but unfortunately had no other Fords to help him draft in the final few laps, leaving his No. 6 falling backwards at the checkers.

FOURTH GEAR: Kyle Busch Dodges Bullet While Painting Clear Picture In Chase

Almirola’s wreck, leaving the No. 43 car 34th in the final rundown helps up paint a clear picture inside the Chase. Suddenly, he’s on the outside looking in, Clint Bowyer of Michael Waltrip Racing pulling 24 markers ahead for the final playoff position on points. With Almirola not known for running up front outside of a few select events – he’s yet to lead a single lap this season – his bid for the postseason may be done.

Bowyer, then may be looking over his shoulder at whether Kyle Busch can muscle inside the top 30 in points and, in essence steal a spot. Busch, who has the Cup victory needed to qualify, hit the wall early at Daytona but battled back, using two of NASCAR’s “free passes” to earn laps back. Running 17th at the checkers, he moved within 128 points of Cole Whitt for 30th place and can take huge chunks out of that deficit in the tracks ahead. Kentucky, New Hampshire and Indianapolis leave teams like Whitt’s struggling to just run 30th so a few top 10s and Busch will be in position to capitalize.

OVERDRIVE

For Austin Dillon, it was a tale of two Daytonas. He won the XFINITY Series race the night before as the sophomore was continuing to build confidence in NASCAR’s minor leagues. Boy, what a difference 24 hours makes… NBC was widely praised for their coverage, the first live NASCAR telecast they’ve done since 2006. The problem? The race itself didn’t start until 11:42 p.m., suffering through a rain delay of nearly four hours. Wonder what TV executives thought of their $440 million-a-year package consisting of Sunday primetime rain-delay fill? Their first rating was a disappointing 2.6 in the Nielsens… Danica Patrick, in perhaps her last chance to make the Chase, was never up to speed. Involved in several wrecks, she broke a suspension, crashed out and now sits 79 points behind Clint Bowyer with nine races remaining. 

— Written by Tom Bowles, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and the Majority Owner of NASCAR Web site Frontstretch.com. He can be reached at tom.bowles@frontstretch.com or on Twitter @NASCARBowles.

Photos by Action Sports, Inc.