By Jerry Bonkowski
Just over two years after Kyle Larson’s car was obliterated and several fans in the Daytona International Speedway stands were injured by flying debris when Larson’s car flew up into the catchfence, it was virtually déjà vu in Sunday’s Coke Zero 400 at DIS.
This time, it was Austin Dillon’s car that – just like Larson’s car – lost its front and back ends in a spectacular crash, while the motor wound up several feet away. Thankfully, Dillon was able to walk away without major injury.
And just like Larson’s wreck, several fans were injured by flying debris that rained down upon them from either Dillon’s car or the catchfence. Fortunately, the number hurt and the severity of injuries was significantly lower this second time around.
But are fewer and less severe injuries true proof that the improvements implemented at Daytona after Larson’s wreck really did their job Sunday?
I’m not so sure about that.
Even one injury from flying debris is one injury too many in my mind.
Sure, every time there is a “big one,” it’s high drama. But at what cost? No matter how safe NASCAR strengthens and reinforces track catchfences or race cars themselves, the same culprit remains, namely, restrictor plates.
Since 1988, NASCAR has mandated restrictor plates at both Daytona and Talladega for Sprint Cup and Xfinity Series cars to slow them down and, in theory, prevent things like Larson’s and Dillon’s wrecks from happening.
I understand NASCAR’s reluctance to do away with restrictor plates. But Dillon’s horrific wreck should be the final wakeup call that NASCAR needs.
If it can require a new aero package for this Saturday’s race at Kentucky, why not a new package – sans plates – for Talladega later this year (and a permanent ban starting next year)?
With all the advancements NASCAR has made in safety over the last 15 years, how is it that an effective alternative still can’t be found to replace the plates?
To me, the solution is rather simple: get rid of plates in favor of significantly smaller motors that also have greatly reduced horsepower.
While those cars may not necessarily be able to exceed 200 mph like they did Sunday, no plates means more driver control, greater passing ability, less hazardous drafting and more room to maneuver between cars.
Smaller motors with, say, 150-less horsepower would likely translate into speeds still approaching 190 mph – but without the inherent risk that results from plate racing.
Granted, the shows that are put on by plate racing can be thrilling. To see cars go three-wide at 200-plus mph is a sight that make many NASCAR fans swoon in awe.
But when you see something like what happened to Dillon, it’s clear something must be done. If cars can do 200-plus mph at high-speed tracks like Texas and Michigan and not wind up in the catchfence or injure fans, why not at ‘Dega and ‘Tona?
When Dillon climbed out of his car, I immediately thought about team owner Richard Childress. It’s bad enough Childress lost his best friend (Dale Earnhardt Sr.) in a restrictor plate race at Daytona. What if Childress had also lost his grandson at the same track, and due to the same reason?
Would such a possible tragedy be simply chalked up to “that’s racin’?”
The Race Team Alliance, which includes Childress and other Sprint Cup team owners, as well as the recently formed NASCAR drivers council, owe it to the fans, their teams, and their families to force NASCAR to bury restrictor plates once and for all – before we have to bury yet another driver instead.
Jerry Bonkowski writes for NASCAR Talk at NBCSports.com. Follow him on Twitter @JerryBonkowski.