TALLADEGA — So, once again, as sunset falls over Talladega, mangled cars heading north, drivers’ jets going wheels-up and energized fans streaming out in all directions, we are left with the same old conundrum:
Exceptionally thrilling racing or playing with fire?
In Sunday’s GEICO 500, it was Joey Logano’s aerobatics that brought a sobering moment about just how perilous this sport is.
Denny Hamlin got a skoosh loose on the backstretch on lap 59. He clipped Logano, who flipped almost immediately and leapt into the air. After a rollover, he awkwardly landed on all fours.
The only thing Logano and his nemesis-slash-teammate Brad Keselowski may agree upon is what Keselowski said after collecting his sixth Talladega victory:
“You can’t have cars leaving the ground.”
We’ve seen more frightening crashes at Talladega, and its big-track, high-speed cousin Daytona. Of recent vintage, the 2020 Daytona 500 last-lap wreck involving Ryan Newman that left him with a brain injury and sidelined for numerous races.
Logano will never threaten Chase Elliott’s stranglehold on the “Most Popular Driver Award.” He’ll be a less sympathetic figure than many, and he was also understandably shaken when he did an interview with Fox TV upon leaving the infield care center. Still, his words had much validity.
“It is a product of this racing,” Logano said. “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. On one hand, I am mad about being in the crash. … I am wondering when we are going to stop because this is dangerous doing what we are doing. 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. I just don't feel like that is acceptable.”
A product of this racing.
Talladega’s speeds and the sophisticated aerodynamics create exhilarating racing. Cars are able to push each other at 200 mph. It’s what has made this one of the most popular tracks in NASCAR. The customers are being served what they want.
Many a fan would simply shrug, hey, that’s what they’re getting paid for. They knew it was risky when they became drivers.
“It’s entertaining,” acknowledged runner-up William Byron. “If I’m a fan, I think it’s entertaining. So you have to balance it.”
“We have to fix it though.” Logano said. “Someone already got hurt and we are still doing it, so that’s not real smart.”
So the Smart People have their challenge.
Engineers made the cars safe. Safety measures kept Logano alive, kept Newman alive and have prevented any fatalities for two decades. But where they have designed safety for cars, they haven’t necessarily designed cars that race safely. With a Next Gen car on the horizon for next year, it’ll be still another “who knows?” episode for NASCAR and how they react at a place like Talladega.
“I think it’s a great opportunity to look at it and evaluate it,” Matt DiBenedetto said, “because the runs are very big and it does get pretty treacherous and a little aggressive. But, overall, glad the safety of the cars is so excellent because of all the work they’ve done over the years.”
It turns out, of course, that the conundrum isn’t an either-or. It’s both. It’s thrilling racing, and what makes it thrilling brings the reality that NASCAR is playing with fire.
“We’re pretty good drivers, but none of that stuff (brakes, throttle, steering wheel, etc.) works when we’re in the air,” Keselowski said. “What comes up must come down.”
You have to fear for the day when something comes down really hard, when NASCAR is burned by the fire that is, well, the product of this racing.
Veteran sportswriter Mark McCarter is a special contributor to the Star. You may reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org