The Frontstretch: Michigan's Four Burning Questions: Junior's Time To Shine And "SAFER"ty Needs by Matt Stallknecht -- Thursday June 13, 2013

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Michigan International Speedway is the site of this weekend’s slate of NASCAR racing action, but that is the least of what anyone in the racing world is thinking about at the moment. Wednesday night at Bridgeport Speedway in New Jersey, longtime NASCAR veteran Jason Leffler was involved in a horrific Dirt Sprint Car accident that claimed his life. Oftentimes in this sport of racing, we think these drivers, these heroes that we watch in awe week after week, are invincible. In an era of SAFER barriers, HANS devices, and stiff space-age roll cages, we have been desensitized to just how morbidly dangerous this sport can be. Unfortunately, Jason Leffler’s accident was a sobering reminder that these drivers are not invincible, and that racing is one of the most dangerous endeavors that a human can undertake. We lost Jason far, far too soon, and his absence will be felt from the smallest dirt car facilities around the country all the way up to the high banks of Michigan International Speedway.

With heavy hearts, we push on with this week’s edition of Four Burning Questions.

1. Will anyone be able to pass at Michigan? Will the draft actually be a factor?

Last week in this column I praised Pocono Raceway for having done a good job with the repave of the track, and even predicted that the race would be fairly exciting. Well folks, I missed the mark a bit on that one. While the Gen 6 cars were pretty racy on the new pavement after restarts and late in the race, most of the event was a bit of a drag. Given that Michigan, the site of this week’s race, similarly laid down some new pavement in the past year and a half, there is understandable concern among fans that the race could be processional in the vein of Pocono.

One of the problems I have noticed with the Gen 6 car is that it has not taken well to repaved race tracks. On tracks that have any amount of age on them, the racing has improved drastically compared to the Gen 5 races on the same tracks. But on recently repaved and/or super smooth tracks such as Kansas, Charlotte, and Pocono (Daytona could probably be thrown in with that group as well, although the repave isn’t necessarily the biggest problem at that facility right now), the racing has been mostly a repeat of what we saw with the Gen 5 car. The Gen 6 races better in deep traffic on the repaves than the Gen 5 did (NASCAR loop data supports this), but clean air still yields untold amounts of speed for the leaders which is obviously a major problem. As such, can we expect more of the same at Michigan?

Yes and no. Unlike the other aforementioned repaved tracks, Michigan is long enough and banked high enough to allow some semblance of drafting to come into play down the straightaways. We saw a little bit of this in the races here last year, but with the added downforce and the massive spoiler native to the Gen 6 car, the draft should be an even bigger factor in 2013. At the similarly shaped Auto Club Speedway (which has less banking, more bumps, and less speed), we saw the draft be incredibly viable. Considering that Michigan has more banking, more speed, and far fewer bumps, the draft will undoubtedly be even more effective. Theoretically, this should ease the difficulty of passing a bit, and hopefully lead to more excitement. We’ll just have to see.

One year ago at Michigan, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. broke his victory drought. Can he win there again this weekend?

2. Will Dale Earnhardt Jr. defend his Michigan crown?

Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s resurgence to prominence came to a crescendo on this weekend one year ago in the 2012 Quicken Loans 400 at Michigan. Earnhardt Jr. utterly dominated the race and established himself as a championship contender going forward. Of course, that championship contention never materialized for a variety of reasons, but no one knew that around the time that Junior pulled into Michigan’s victory lane. The winless streak was over, Junior was a title threat, and all was seemingly well among his legions and legions of fans.

But alas, here we are one year later, and the sailing has not been quite as smooth for Earnhardt Jr. since he last found victory lane. While he still was a solid performer in 2012 after his Michigan win, Earnhardt Jr.’s results dipped a bit, culminating in a disappointing Chase run that was marked by so-so finishes compared to the top contenders and a 2-race absence due to concussion. Those peaks and valleys have carried into 2013, characterized by a fast start to the season that was matched by a minor slump that lasted from Texas to Charlotte.

Luckily for Junior Nation, that slump appears to have ended, and Junior seems to once again be peaking heading into his best track on the schedule. He ran in the top 5 all race long on the similarly downforce-intensive Pocono track just one week ago, capping off the day with a solid 3rd place finish. His Hendrick-powered cars also appear to have the most speed of anyone at the moment now that JGR has been forced to deal with a newly detuned TRD engine. Perhaps most importantly, Earnhardt Jr.’s confidence appears to be intact, evidenced by a post-race interview last week that seemed to indicate that both he and his team are optimistic about their fortunes heading into the summer stretch that was so rewarding to them one year ago.

All told, the stars appear to once again be aligning for Dale Earnhardt Jr. heading into Michigan. The car is there, the team is strong once again, and his confidence appears to be high. This is Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s best shot at a win all season. We’ll see if he can pull it off.

3. Can Austin Dillon make some noise in another one-off Cup showing this weekend?

Last weekend’s Nationwide event at Iowa aside, 2013 has not been a kind season thus far to Austin Dillon on the Nationwide Series front. While he appears to be running better now than he did to start the season, many observers have noted that Dillon does not seem to be performing at the same level he performed at one year ago, and both I and a great many others have postulated that this tailing off in performance could be due to a sort of “disinterest” in the Nationwide Series. His non-chalant attitude after losing the lead to Trevor Bayne late in the going last Sunday is perhaps evidence of that. It’s pretty much a foregone conclusion that Austin will be driving Cup cars full time for his granddad Richard Childress next season, so it’s not inconceivable to think that he is simply mailing it in on the Nationwide circuit at this point knowing he doesn’t have to really “prove” his way into the Cup ranks anymore.

Assuming Dillon does have his eye on the 2014 Cup Series, he would be wise to step up his performance in the Cup ranks, because he hasn’t been too terribly impressive in his limited Cup Series appearances thus far. Since 2011, Dillon has logged 6 starts in the Cup Series, with 4 of those starts coming in 2013. Half of those starts were made in top notch Childress equipment, and the other half were made in middle-of-the-road Phoenix Racing equipment. Either way, the results have been pretty disappointing. Dillon has a paltry average finish of 28.0 across his 6 Cup starts.

Now, granted, Dillon has next to no experience in these cars, and as such he can be forgiven for his relative lack of pace on the Cup side for the time being. Rome wasn’t built in day, right? Having said that, Dillon can’t just slog around in 27th in all of his pre-2014 Cup appearances and expect to be taken seriously when the time comes for him to make the full transition to Cup.

With that in mind, Austin Dillon ought to drive with perhaps a bit more purpose this Sunday in Michigan, as he is getting yet another chance to pilot top notch Richard Childress Racing equipment in his tune-up for 2014, all while not having to worry about points. Michigan is not exactly the most difficult track to drive either, if anything it’s probably the most forgiving track to drive for a rookie such as Dillon (outside of Daytona/Talladega, but the racing itself on those tracks is a unique challenge all on its own). A top 20 performance is expected, and if he can’t deliver on that, Papa Childress may have to rethink his decision to bring Dillon up to the Cup ranks so quickly.

4. In the wake of the Jason Leffler tragedy, will NASCAR step up and demand SAFER barriers for all of the tracks in the “NASCAR Hometracks” program?

I generally like to focus on issues that pertain specifically to the NASCAR Sprint Cup weekend at hand when I write this column every week, but given the gravity of the Jason Leffler tragedy that occurred a few nights ago, I feel as though I’d be remiss to not tackle this topic as I feel it is something that is relevant to every single rung on the NASCAR ladder, many of which will be racing this weekend. The biggest disgrace that stuck out to me when reading about the circumstances that led up to Jason Leffler’s death was the fact that Bridgeport Speedway did not have a SAFER Barrier. It’s impossible to really know if a SAFER Barrier could have saved Jason’s life on Wednesday night, but you can be damn sure he would have stood a better chance at surviving the incident had one been in place. Bearing that in mind, one can not help but be disgusted by the fact that Bridgeport was lacking a well-known and critical safety feature that more than likely would have saved a man’s life.

I get that SAFER Barriers are expensive to install. I really do. But guess what? You can’t put a price on the life of a human being. If a short track has to take a loss for the year in order to install a SAFER Barrier, then so be it, the value of a saved human life far outweights whatever cost a SAFER Barrier comes at. Every track in this country should have one, there really is no excuse. We know they save lives or, at the very least, lessen the risk of serious injury. A track without a SAFER Barrier in this day and age is tantamount to a race team running a car without a roll cage in order to “save money.” Sounds ridiculous doesn’t it? The fact that all tracks don’t have one at this point is infuriating.

Of course, the prevailing question is…who could possibly enforce such a rule that all tracks must have these barriers? NASCAR, that’s who. While NASCAR obviously does not own/sanction all of the nation’s short tracks, they sanction enough of them via their NASCAR Hometracks program to at least be able to put a dent in the number of short tracks without SAFER Barriers. The rule would be simple: want to be a NASCAR sanctioned track? Install a SAFER Barrier, or else risk losing your NASCAR sanctioning and all of the perks and marketing power that come with it. Bridgeport Speedway unfortunately is not a NASCAR Hometrack, but who knows how many future lives could be saved if NASCAR at least mandated SAFER Barriers for all of the short tracks it sanctions around the country?

NASCAR claims that it’s some sort of pioneer in the world of safety, so let’s see them put their money where their mouth is. If NASCAR was truly safety-conscious, they would be formulating a new policy identical to the one I described above. We shall see if they decide to step up.

The sad reality of it all is that Jason Leffler should not have lost his life on Wednesday night. SAFER Barriers are a necessity in today’s world of racing, and you, the fan, should not stand for tracks to shy away from installing them any longer. It shouldn’t even be a discussion at this point, the bloodshed needs to stop. If you don’t have a SAFER Barrier, you shouldn’t be allowed to conduct races. Period.

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Today on the Frontstretch:
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Steve K
06/14/2013 02:08 AM

The problem is just that: The expense of safer barrier. I doubt running a small town track is very lucrative. The amount it costs to add the barrier may be the difference between staying open for business and shutting down. Where does the money come from?

Andy D
06/14/2013 03:48 AM

SAFER barriers cost $500 per foot. That’s a minimum of three million dollars to do both sides of the 5/8 Bridgeport track. Spectators are unwilling to absorb those costs through ticket and concession prices.

Nearly thirteen people are killed in occupational accidents every day in the US. They’re not going to get the attention that Jason Leffler did. We should be looking at other areas before auto racing.

An average of 13 drivers get killed at racetracks in the United States every year. There are more than 1400 tracks in the US. So there’s a less than one percent chance that a given track will have a fatality in any given year. Three million is a lot to spend on those odds.

NASCAR has NEVER been a safety pioneer. They still use floor jacks and handheld gas cans in the pits. The SAFER barrier was developed for Indycars. All the major series mandated HANS at least a year before NASCAR. Roll bars were required in other series first.

Cup drivers are fond of complaining about various spots that lack SAFER barriers. I say let them pool their multi-million dollar salaries and split the cost of more barriers where they feel they are needed.

06/14/2013 11:51 AM

If you mandate safer barriers at short tracks, that will be the end of short track racing. They simply can’t afford it. There will always be risk associated with racing and some of it is unavoidable. If you were to do this, you might as well just cancel all WoO races and late model races and modified races because there would be no tracks left to race on.

06/14/2013 12:24 PM

Nascar a safety pioneer? Get serious. They react, they don’t lead. How long did it take them to mandate the Hans device or its equivalent? The problem with small local tracks though is exactly what Andy pointed out. They would have to shut down if safer barriers were mandated. Exactly what do we want?

06/14/2013 12:30 PM

It’s always hard to learn of the tragedy of losing a race car driver, especially thinking of his young son. However, as long as men are trying to go as fast as possible in cars, things like this will happen. Unfortunately, drivers know there is always a risk involved, as do fans. But isn’t that element of danger one of the very things that makes us admire them so much?

Matt Stallknecht
06/14/2013 12:31 PM

NASCAR needs to fund it then. They have plenty of money available to help some of these short tracks out.

And believe me guys, I know NASCAR is no safety pioneer. When I said they were a safety pioneer, I was saying it sarcastically.

06/14/2013 05:41 PM

Matt, you are dreaming if you think that NASCAR/the France family will lay money out of their pockets for safety innovations at these tracks. They let the Pit crew challenge die this year because no one else would fund it.

The France family is in it to use other people’s money for things, not their own.

Andy D has a good idea. Let the Cup drivers spend some of their big money to keep the short track racing going.

06/16/2013 03:35 AM

How many injuries have we had this year due to drives hitting cement sections of the wall this year in Sprint Cup? Nascar is too short-sighted to put it on every wall, they wont lift a finger to help a short track.

The truth is, safety is a token element of auto racing, but its worse in some series than others.

NASCAR being one of the worst. Still content to have lugnuts going everywhere in the pits, one just waiting to be turned into a projectile. They will not do a thing until it kills a child. And when that tragedy happens, they’ll roll out Larry Mac on Raceday and pay him to tell us how pro-active Nascar is about safety and how unforseen an accident it was.

Brian France, Helton, and all the Media tied into this sport disgust me.

Nascar wants your money to feed their egos that they can make it as busisnessmen, not carnival barkers. Safety is a nuisance for them up until they have something to crow about.