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Sunday, April 26, 2009

It’s all fun and games until somebody gets killed

Just a day ago, after Matt Kenseth’s wreck, I wrote that NASCAR was unlikely to do anything about the dangers posed by restrictor racing, because the racing is so exciting they wouldn’t want to mess with it.

After Sunday’s race, which ended with a terrifying Carl Edwards wreck into the catch fence that also injured eight fans, as well as several other wrecks that left more than half the field with damaged or destroyed racecars, it’s gone beyond being exciting. For every great exciting finish like we saw Saturday in the Nationwide race, there seems to be a horrific and scary finish like we saw Sunday in the Cup race.

At what point is it too much?

Carl Edwards was to the point, and accurate, when he said after the race: "I guess we'll do this until somebody gets killed and then we'll change it, but that's the way it is.”

NASCAR certainly didn’t help prevent this situation by being so absolute on its “no passing below the yellow line” rule. Prior to this race, they told the drivers there would be no exceptions to this rule, even on the last lap to avoid a wreck.

The situation at the end of Sunday’s race was the exact same as last year, except Keselowski had no option but to wreck Edwards. If he had gone below the line, he would have been penalized and awarded a 23rd place finish. That was a hard lesson learned by Smith last year, and Keselowski wasn’t about to be victimized by the same ridiculous rule.

What NASCAR is saying with the yellow line rule is plain and simple: They’d rather see drivers wreck on the last lap than race each other for the win. It’s a shameful policy and needs to be changed before the next restrictor plate race. The rule needs to be suspended if the pass happens in the last lap of the race, and anyone who disagrees is supporting a policy that could someday have fatal consequences.

But moving beyond the individual rule, let’s get back to the overall situation with plate racing. As I’ve said, it’s very exciting at times, and that’s why fans like it. But I felt sick watching that wreck on lap 8 on Sunday. That wasn’t exciting, it was a disgrace that took out a lot of cars that could have competed for the win.

If a bit of minor contact between Matt Kenseth and Jeff Gordon can cause a wreck that destroys or damages more than a dozen racecars, something isn’t right.

Beyond the track turning into a junkyard far too often at these races, this kind of racing has now led to fan injuries, as the result of debris from when Edwards went airborne. None were life-threatening, but one spectator may have a broken jaw.

Edwards’ wreck at the end was scarily similar to Bobby Allison’s 1987 wreck, which led to the introduction of restrictor plate racing as a way to slow the cars down. Well, guess what NASCAR, these kind of wrecks are still happening, even with the plates. Do you still think plates and large-pack racing are the answer.

Imagine if the catch fence hadn’t held back Edwards’ car. I would probably be writing about a bloodbath similar to the one that happened during the 1955 Le Mans 24-hour race. Pierre Levegh’s Mercedes, traveling at around 150 mph, somersaulted over the safety barrier, caught fire and broke into pieces, which flew into the crowd. More than 80 people were killed and more than 100 were injured.

If Edwards’ car had reached the stands, it would have been the blackest day in NASCAR history, and I’ll be happy if I never see another Cup car go into the fence like that and I never see another 20-car pileup brought on by incidental contact between two drivers.

What disturbed me most Sunday was Fox commentators telling us, after all the carnage, that Sunday’s Talladega race was the “best race” of the season, and the “best race in a long time.” While it was exciting at times, I wouldn’t call a race where all but a dozen cars were involved in wrecks and eight fans were injured by debris the “best race” of any time period.

It was a demolition derby … and I get tired of the Fox network promoting that fact. There were more scary wrecks this weekend than I care to see on any weekend in the future, and even the fans got a taste of the downside of restrictor plate racing this week.

The most important thing is that Edwards, and all the other drivers who took hard hits Sunday, are still in one piece. And NASCAR should be thankful so few fans were injured.

Bottom line: NASCAR needs to allow a last-lap exception on the yellow-line rule, and do something else to limit speed that doesn’t require the dangerous pack racing we are seeing at Daytona and Talladega.

I want to see exciting racing, but I also don’t want to see anybody die.


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