The GEICO 500 at Talladega Superspeedway on Sunday (April 25) was another superspeedway race producing an exciting finish. Joey Logano just wasn’t around to see it.
That’s because this handling package sent another car airborne, leaving a NASCAR champion after another superspeedway race scared for his safety and clamoring for major changes. It’s the dichotomy of this style of racing: bringing fans to their feet one minute, fearful for a driver’s life the next.
Coming to the end of stage one on lap 60, Logano was turned sideways across the front of the field, slammed in the left rear by Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and launched into the air. The AutoTrader No. 22 Ford landed on its roof, clipped the hood of Bubba Wallace‘s No. 23 car, then tumbled back onto its tires on the banking of turn 3 before spinning safely into the grass.
End of Stage 1: Chaospic.twitter.com/7E9vCyqCZD
— FOX: NASCAR (@NASCARONFOX) April 25, 2021
Logano wound up unhurt, his crash fading into the background as the racing remained edgy throughout. Talladega was thrilling, compelling, daunting and nerve-wracking all afternoon long.
In the end, there wasn’t the massive 15-car pile-up we’ve become accustomed to seeing whenever NASCAR gets to Talladega or Daytona International Speedway. But Logano’s wreck was more than enough. The enormous runs each driver was able to get on their competitors created necessary moments to defend, leading to inevitable contact and eventual carnage. It was, at its core, what we have come to expect from this track: three-abreast, white-knuckle racing that comes with high risk for the drivers competing.
As you’d expect, Logano was pretty biased in his post-crash interview. The man flew through the Alabama air and landed hard on his head. But his comments humanized the terror and frustration that comes with this style of close-quarters racing at 200 mph.
“I am wondering when we are going to stop because this is dangerous, doing what we are doing,” the 2018 Cup Series champion said. “I got a roll bar in my head. That is not OK. I am one hit away from the same situation Ryan Newman just went through [in the 2020 Daytona 500]. I just don’t feel like that is acceptable. A lot of it is the big spoiler and the big runs and all the pushing. It is nobody’s fault. Denny [Hamlin] is trying to go and the 47 [Stenhouse Jr.] is trying to go.
“It is a product of this racing. We have to fix it though. Someone already got hurt and we are still doing it, so that’s not real smart.”
Logano is far from the first driver to call for change at superspeedways. But with the NextGen car due to hit the track for Daytona Speedweeks in February 2022, is it time for a change in the fundamentals of superspeedway competition?
For decades, this is the type of racing NASCAR media members, fans and teams have resigned ourselves to at superspeedways. The spectacular flips and numerous melees create the perfect highlight reel fodder that can be strewn around social media, sprinkled in with dramatic footage of 25 cars racing three- and four-wide for laps at a time.
But at what point do we say enough of this style of racing is enough? How did the horror of Newman’s near-death experience at the 2020 Daytona 500 not become the inflection point? What about Kyle Larson‘s vicious Talladega tumble in the spring of 2019 – or when he cracked ribs at the fall Talladega race that same year after T-boning Alex Bowman?
Is NASCAR content to wait until another car flies into the catchfence, a la Larson at Daytona 2013, or Austin Dillon in the same tri-oval two years later? The industry is tremendously lucky no other fans were more seriously hurt beyond the dozen who did get injured. The same could be said about Carl Edwards’ flight into the Talladega fence in 2009, injuring a half-dozen more.
Years later, there may be no restrictor plates but the collective danger of this type of racing remains the same. Brad Keselowski, who won the event and is Logano’s teammate at Team Penske, noted how quickly runs build in this iteration of superspeedway racing, something that largely dictates the outcomes of these races – whether via finish or crash.
“It’s so incredibly easy to build a run,” Keselowski said. “I don’t know if you have to have quite as much tact. But it does make for more side-by-side racing. I think the fans like that. There’s some tradeoffs.”
The question is if the fans like their favorite drivers literally risking their lives at these two racetracks. To a certain degree, considering the stands are always packed at these two tracks, I think you have to say yes.
Auto racing is inherently dangerous. It always will be, and any changes that do come to superspeedway racing won’t eliminate that. But the goal is and should be to be as safe as possible.
To its credit, NASCAR has done incredible, important work to make the cars safer every time a situation like this one has occurred. Should we not, though, expect the sanctioning body to find ways to be consistently more proactive?
“On one hand, I am so proud to drive a Cup car that is safe, and that I can go through a crash like that and get out and speak about it,” Logano said. “On one hand, I am mad about being in the crash and on the other, I am happy to be alive.”
Is there not something that could be done to evaluate the current state of superspeedway racing? Whether we’ve seen unrestricted motors through the 1980s, restrictor-plate pack racing or tandem drafting through the 1990s, 2000s and 2010s, or the package we have now with tapered spacers on the engines reducing horsepower, speeds have always found their way back over the 200-mph mark. Every time, somebody eventually finds themselves in a makeshift airplane that was meant for ground control only.
“We’re pretty good drivers, but none of that stuff works when we’re in the air – the gas pedal, brake pedal, steering wheel, shifter. We’re not rudders,” Keselowski said. “When that thing gets in the air, it lands where it wants to. What goes up must come down. It’s not a jet-propelled airplane. We have no way to control where it comes down, so we absolutely have to find a way to keep them from coming off the ground.”
William Byron, who finished second at Talladega on Sunday, appeared torn on the current style at ‘Dega and Daytona.
“I still think the teams are getting the cars too fast a little bit,” Byron said. “I think we could go slower and still put on a good race. Maybe three, four miles an hour. I don’t know how they would go about that.
“I feel like this package is really good. I feel like it’s one of the best speedway packages we’ve had in a while. I wasn’t a huge fan when I came into Cup, we had the huge bubble effect, guys could just control the lanes, basically could control the race for the whole time. I feel like that was boring.”
You can feel the conflict in how the drivers answer the question. Do the fundamentals of superspeedway racing need to be assessed before transitioning into the next era of stock car racing’s top level? Shouldn’t the NextGen car have a next-level way of making this type of racing safer, giving the drivers more control even if it dials the competition back a notch?
“I think that’s for the fans and people to decide,” Byron said. “It’s entertaining, I think. If I’m a fan, I think it’s really entertaining, so you’ve got to balance that. Obviously as a driver, every time I show up to these races, first and foremost, I don’t want to crash because I feel like, yeah, there is that possibility of hitting something really hard.
“The cars are safe. You strap in, try to just pull your stuff tight. It is what it is. I don’t think it’s going to change anytime soon. It’s entertaining. It’s dangerous. It’s all those things. It’s just a product of it. I’m glad we don’t do it more than four times a year.”
Each manufacturer will debut its NextGen car on May 5. The work that has gone into developing those vehicles is overwhelming as NASCAR truly shifts into the 21st century.
But the question remains ahead of future races at Daytona and Talladega: Will there come a point where we stop accepting these near-death experiences are “just a product of” this style of racing?
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