By Jared Turner
While all of Junior Nation has a renewed sense of optimism about the 2015 season after watching Dale Earnhardt Jr. win Sunday’s race at Talladega Superspeedway, fans of NASCAR’s most popular driver should not get ahead of themselves and declare their man the 2015 Sprint Cup championship favorite. Earnhardt’s win at Talladega, while impressive and certainly great for the sport, means nothing about where he stacks up relative to the competition. Oh, sure, Sunday’s victory solidifies his place in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup, but it’s going to take a lot more than a strong restrictor-plate package to be a factor for the championship once the Chase actually commences. After all, only one of the 10 Chase races is held at a restrictor-plate track. Despite his impressive performance at Talladega, Junior needs to find some speed at the intermediate tracks where he’s been solid but not as strong this season as teammate Jimmie Johnson, Kurt Busch and Kevin Harvick.
If there was ever any doubt about the importance of SAFER barriers, the ARCA race at Talladega proved it. Veteran ARCA driver Brad Smith had a vicious, high-impact collision with the wall when the throttle appeared to hang on his car. Smith, however, walked away under his own power before being transported to the infield care center and then a local hospital for observation. Despite suffering injuries to both ankles, his outcome could have – and almost undoubtedly would have – been much worse if he had hit a wall unprotected by SAFER barrier. Smith’s wreck looked eerily similar to the incident in the February XFINITY Series race at Daytona International Speedway where Kyle Busch slammed hard into a concrete wall that lacked an energy-absorbing SAFER barrier. Busch suffered major foot and leg injuries in the crash and has not raced since.