Through the opening five weeks of the NASCAR season, safety has once again moved to the forefront of the conversation.
Sprint Cup Series regular Kyle Busch suffered a compound fracture to his right leg and a mid-foot fracture of his left foot in an XFINITY Series wreck at Daytona International Speedway. During that incident Busch hit an unprotected concrete wall nearly head on.
In the weeks that followed Jeff Gordon, Jamie McMurray and Erik Jones also hit walls unprotected by a SAFER barrier.
As a result, NASCAR and the tracks have made it clear they will take steps to evaluate the situation surrounding the walls and add SAFER barriers or other protective barriers where needed.
Fan favorite Dale Earnhardt Jr. believes the strides made in safety innovations over the last 10 to 15 years "have been great," but said there is always more work to be done.
"We put barriers where we felt like were common places the cars hit. But as we found out over the last couple of years, specifically, we’ll find all the empty spots where there aren’t any barriers," Earnhardt said Friday at Martinsville Speedway. "And I think that NASCAR is taking some steps to make it right. The tracks are taking some steps to move it along.
"You never can be safe enough," he said. "You never can do enough to be safe and keep the competitors safe and keep the fans safe. You never can do enough. So you shouldn’t ever stop trying."
However, the Hendrick Motorsports driver believes the sport got a bit complacent over the years and it took an incident like Busch’s to "wake everybody up and make things happen."
"You look back at how stripped down safety was inside the cars years ago, and we didn’t worry about it then. And I think over time, you kind of get a little complacent," he said. "You do a lot to get better and get safer and then maybe you get complacent and you think you have enough. And there’s just never enough, you know? You just always keep trying.
"It’s evident, unfortunately, when someone is injured. But we’ve done a ton of stuff over the last several years that we need to be proud of and thankful for and appreciative of. But it’s weird how just looking back over time and I never got into a car worried about my safety. And we’ve come a long, long way."
Earnhardt points to the improved headrests and harness as two areas in particular where NASCAR and the teams have made great strides in safety over the years.
"We’ve got headrests wrapped around us, and harnesses and six-, seven-, nine-point harnesses. We’ve got straps going everywhere. We can hardly be comfortable in the cars with so many damn straps down there," he said.
With drivers more encased and protected than ever and tracks making significant efforts to cover each wall with a SAFER barrier, will there ever be a day when NASCAR is totally safe?
"Not at all," said Earnhardt. "We don’t know this today, but we probably are only one foot in a 100-yard race on how good these headrests and head restraints can get. It looks great and it’s doing a good job now, but there is so much more to understand and learn and improve on these things. There is a lot to be understood and improved on."
Earnhardt pointed out each driver uses a different helmet, safety harness setup and headrest configuration, so it is difficult to know which is the best and safest across the board.
He also commended NASCAR for keeping the drivers in the loop each year to explain what was learned in terms of safety and why various innovations have been made.
"They do a good job of giving us that information and trying to help us understand it," he said. "But we have only just scratched the surface on how safe the headrests can be and where we are with harnesses. We keep improving and adding and changing that."
While the sport has made great strides over the past 10 to 15 years in terms of safety, Earnhardt believes NASCAR should never be complacent and always strive to find something better. He believes as the sport continues to evolve over the years, so will the safety innovations.
"This stuff could look completely foreign to us 20 years from now what we have now. I don’t think any of it is going to stay the same. I mean, it shouldn’t. I think we should always try to improve it," he said. "One day we will look back at what we have now and go, ‘Man, that is crazy! Do you believe we raced with that?’ Because it will be so much better 20 years from now, so much more improved, so much more understood about it.
"We just got what we have in there now because it’s the best option until we get something else. Until we learn more, understand more, study and something else comes out. Then we will be doing that. Then this old stuff will go in the junk."
VIDEO: A look at the evolution of SAFER barriers in NASCAR