NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Happy Hour: NASCAR Vindicated on Car of Tomorrow, Somewhat

To fully appreciate Elliott Sadler’s assertion that his crash at Pocono was the hardest hit he’d ever had in a NASCAR racecar, consider his terrifying end-over-end crash at Talladega in 2003. Maybe impact-wise it wasn’t as rough, but this guy has been through some frightening stuff.

Even what we could see of Sadler’s wreck at Pocono was sickening, and part of me is glad that ESPN didn’t get a good angle on it. I wouldn’t have wanted to see it in future Pocono race promos. It also underscored the point that while racing will never be perfectly safe, NASCAR and its venues need to do everything they can to get as close as they can to that impossible target.

Happy Hour is plenty critical of NASCAR in these pages. But when it comes to making a dangerous sport as safe as possible, the powers that be have a burden to carry that can be unimaginably painful. As rough as Dale Earnhardt’s death was on NASCAR fans, imagine being Bill Simpson (head of the seat belt manufacturer). Or being a high-ranked official who made a decision that mandating the HANS device wasn’t necessary.

In addition to the mandating of the HANS device and the SAFER barriers, NASCAR went through a radical re-engineering of the car being used. To say that the Car of Tomorrow wasn’t warmly received when it first appeared would be a huge understatement. It handled awfully, it destroyed manufacturer identification and worst of all it was ugly.

Some time ago I even wrote a piece questioning whether it really was safer. Suggesting that a car that was extremely difficult to handle was somehow safer made no sense. The top-heavy nature of the car made things extremely rough on outside tires, as made clear at tracks like Atlanta or Indianapolis. The article stated that until Goodyear figures out how to make tires for it, that it wasn’t any safer than the previous machine.

NASCAR could have handled the rollout of the CoT better, but at this point, we should be glad they created it.

The new car, it seems, handles much better these days. Cars don’t go sideways coming out of every turn like they initially did. It looks as though teams are finally figuring it out, and hopefully at some point they’ll learn how to get this thing to pass. Is it me or is there less “yaw” on the bigger tracks?

The manufacturer identity thing is being addressed too, and as insignificant as it may seem to alter front end grills, it’s better than an environment where the manufacturers saw little point in their stock car racing programs. The difference in manufacturers was never reduced to just a label, but it sure seemed that way. Still, to criticize the CoT for lack of manufacturer distinction isn’t entirely fair. It hadn’t existed in NASCAR for years. Watch a race from 2005. Can you tell the difference between Tony Stewart’s Chevy and Matt Kenseth’s Ford?

And the removal of the wing went a long way towards improving the look of the machine. The splitter and air dam are still ugly and they still cut tires, but it’s progress.

Is the racing better? Well, that’s debatable; it still seems too difficult to pass, and on occasion a driver can still get in front and pull away without challenge, as Greg Biffle did at Pocono. The double-file restarts have helped that situation somewhat, but it still exists. What I will concede is that since the introduction of the winged snowplow, the racing has improved. There seem to be more side-by-side battles and fewer parades.

All of the recent changes to a car that NASCAR had originally dug in its heels on design-wise were in response to fan and team outcry. It’s a shame that it took declining ratings and attendance to get NASCAR to finally listen, at least as far as the car is concerned. We now know that they aren’t too comfortable in their position anymore, and at least as far as overseeing a potentially lethal sport, they never should be.

But they’re making suggested improvements without just scrapping the whole design, and truthfully, that takes some humility. If you want to know why NASCAR won’t consider eliminating the Chase, which is even uglier than the wing in a metaphorical sense, ask yourself how many times NASCAR has admitted to being wrong. It doesn’t happen often. But they have accepted that there were many things about the current car that people didn’t like. It is to their credit that not only did they make adjustments, but that they stayed with the meat of the design.

Would Sadler have walked away from the crash in the old car? My best guess is only “probably.” In all likelihood, the HANS device and improved seatbelts protected him more than the strengthened chassis with foam impact reduction did. These things might have saved Earnhardt’s life, and Sadler’s crash seemed much worse.

But quite simply, we don’t know and never will know that. When a wreck is so vicious that not even the engine stays put, nothing is certain. And “probably” isn’t good enough.

It’s not perfect and probably won’t ever be. The main point is that we saw a driver take a mammoth lick into a wall without a SAFER barrier and get out of the car essentially unharmed. Old car or new car, they’ve done something right.

Kurt’s Shorts

  • I’m glad to see Jack Roush’s condition improving, and all of us at Frontstretch wish him Godspeed.
  • Is Jeff Gordon ever going to catch a break? The No.24 car could have been in victory lane maybe five times this year. That team may be the best on the circuit right now, even if the No. 48 team is playing possum again. And still no wins, mostly because of just horrendous luck. Which still plays a huge role in this sport.
  • I originally had a whole column written on NASCAR fining Denny Hamlin and Ryan Newman, but briefly, however justified NASCAR may have been, the last thing they should do when a driver makes that dreaded WWE comparison is call more attention to it. A lot of fans agreed with Hamlin that debris cautions are thrown to bunch up the field. When NASCAR immediately shuts a driver up for saying it, what are we supposed to think?
  • Tom Bowles wants me to say something about the imminent announcement of Kentucky Speedway being added to the schedule, but I am waiting on the official announcement so I can see which track is losing a race and go right back to being a critic again. Stay tuned.

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