Dale Jr.: NASCAR deserves credit for keeping drivers safe

Multiple drivers, most notably Ryan Newman and Joey Logano, spoke in highly critical terms of the dangers inherent in restrictor-plate racing after Austin Dillon’s airborne crash on the final lap of the Coke Zero 400 at Daytona International Speedway.

Others in the sport have in recent days lobbied NASCAR to make major changes at Daytona and Talladega Superspeedway, and some pundits have even suggested abandoning the often-maligned restrictor plates altogether.

Daytona winner Dale Earnhardt Jr., who admitted to being "on the verge of tears" when he saw Dillon’s car go flying violently into the catch fence in his rear-view mirror, doesn’t claim to have the answer for making the racing safer at the two plate tracks where the Sprint Cup Series competes a total of four times each year.

"If I had an opinion about it, I certainly would view my opinion," NASCAR’s most popular driver said during post-race interviews in the wee hours of Monday morning. "But it’s just a product of going 200 miles an hour. These cars are going fast, and when you put them in odd, rare circumstances like that, they’re going to go up in the air.

"We do everything we can and have made a lot of changes and incorporated a lot of things into these cars to try to keep them on the ground, but you never can — in those imperfect situations, there’s not much you can do about it."

"It’s the racing that we have to abide by," Ives said, referring to Daytona and Talladega, where the plates keep drivers bunched in tight packs, usually three- and four-wide. "I mean, I’m not here to dictate rules. I’m not here to point NASCAR in the right direction. I’m here to take what they give me and try to win races with it.

"If there was no passing, if there wasn’t close racing, then there would be another problem. I commend NASCAR for trying to work on things. … We’ve just got to take their rules. They have a lot of people that are giving them advice, and I just take their rules and I try to expose where we can to win races. That’s all I can do."

While Earnhardt said he expects NASCAR and Daytona to learn from Dillon’s wreck and take steps toward making the racing safer for both drivers and fans, he hasn’t made specific recommendations or, as Newman did, accused NASCAR of not putting enough emphasis on safety.

It was the second time since 2013 that a car has gone airborne into a catch fence at the 2.5-mile high-speed track, but neither incident resulted in life-threatening injuries.

Photos: The most harrowing NASCAR crashes from which drivers walked away

"There’s always going to be that danger … they did a good job putting that catch fence up because that catch fence took a hell of a shot, you know," Earnhardt said. "I mean, I don’t know what else you could throw at it besides what it saw tonight. So we’re just getting better at not only keeping the drivers safe but keeping the fans safe to where they can come and trust everyone to be able to enjoy an event and not be in danger."

Since Earnhardt’s father died in a crash on the final lap of the 2001 Daytona 500, NASCAR and tracks have instituted numerous changes designed to make the racing safer. Among the most notable safety interventions have been the addition of SAFER barriers at all tracks and NASCAR’s requirement after Dale Earnhardt Sr.’s death that all drivers in the sport’s three major series wear mandatory head-and-neck restraint (HANS) devices, along with closed-face helmets.

Earnhardt Jr. believes NASCAR and Daytona won’t sit idle if the sanctioning body’s ongoing probe of Dillon’s accident suggests ways to make catch fences stronger and reduce the risks involved in big-pack racing.

"They’ll look at it and they’ll say, man, this didn’t work the way we thought it would or this didn’t hold up the way we thought it would, and they’ll understand that maybe this needs to be tougher or built differently," he said.

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"You know … there’s a lot of luck involved, but also … you’ve got to give the catch fence and NASCAR’s innovation some of the credit for the fact that we don’t have any real serious injuries."

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