From sturdier cars, to SAFER barriers to mandatory head-and-neck restraint devices and a host of other interventions, NASCAR and the tracks where the sport competes have made significant progress in the area of safety over the past 15 years.
The proof lies in the fact that NASCAR hasn’t witnessed the death of a driver in one of its three major series since seven-time Sprint Cup champion Dale Earnhardt perished 15 years ago on the final lap of the Daytona 500.
While the competitors almost universally applaud NASCAR for putting such a focal point on safety, numerous drivers believe there’s more work to be done in at least one specific area — infield grass.
Quite simply, when race cars slide through grass — especially at the two restrictor-plate tracks, Daytona International Speedway and Talladega Superspeedway — they are lot more prone to go airborne, which no one ever wants to see.
And even when the cars don’t roll over, going for a ride at 140 or 150 mph in grass often leads to major damage that would likely be minimized on asphalt or concrete. Saturday night’s Sprint Unlimited at Daytona was a case in point when six-time Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson’s No. 48 Chevy broke loose down the backstretch.
Johnson’s car slid and bounced through the grass, resulting in the entire front end being all but destroyed and the Hendrick Motorsports driver’s night coming to an abrupt end.
The bottom line?
As attractive as grass might look to fans, track operators and race sponsors, multiple drivers believe the risks that come from grass outweigh the rewards. And they believe it’s time for NASCAR to work with tracks on getting rid of it — or at least having less of it.
Here’s what several drivers told reporters about what they view as the negatives of infield grass, during Tuesday’s NASCAR Media Day at Daytona:
Jimmie Johnson: "I mean, I’ve been trying to bang that drum for a long time. I’ve talked to track owners, operators about it. I’ve mentioned it to all of you, as well. I just think when you look at how many cars were taken out of the race, we would have a much better race if the grass wasn’t there. I didn’t hit anything (on Saturday night). All I did was go through the grass, got the nose ripped off. I know there were many other cars that went through the same thing. When you look at Ryan Newman’s crash (at Daytona in 2003) on the frontstretch here, he was fine till he got on the grass, then he started flipping. Grass doesn’t slow you down like asphalt does. When you look at Kyle Busch’s impact in the XFINITY race (at Daytona last February). My opinion, grass belongs on golf courses. We need asphalt around here to slow the cars down, control the cars."
Ryan Newman: "You saw what Jimmie Johnson did cutting across through there. If his nose would have snagged the grass wrong, the car would have flipped over and he could have ended up if not in the lake (Daytona’s Lake Lloyd), close to it. So there’s a lot of things we still need to keep our eye on. Did he stay safe? Yes. Did he not hit the wall? Yes. Did he rip the nose off his car unnecessarily? Absolutely."
Paul Menard: "I don’t think we need grass anywhere. It’s a safety hazard. It looks prettier than asphalt and is way cheaper than asphalt, but it is a safety hazard."
AJ Allmendinger: "It looks pretty, but the grass is one thing that tears many race cars apart. Certain ways when it’s wet (the car) picks up speed. The tracks, they’re doing what they can. … Right now, the grass has gotten thicker (at Daytona) and it just augers in. I remember the Fourth of July race here two years ago. They all wrecked in front of me and I hit a wet patch and went to go down pit road and locked the tires up and hit the grass and it looked like I had been in 200 mph power front impact and I didn’t hit anything. Pavement would be nicer."
Greg Biffle: "Grass is never good. I don’t know if any of you guys have ever been in the grass in a car going over 40 or 50 mph, but it’s like ice skates. You’ve got no control. You have no idea where you’re going. So race cars and grass don’t do well together. Now I get you can’t pave a stinkin’ thing from one wall to the other wall, but the more pavement and runoff area you have, the safer you’re going to create it. It’s that simple. It’s a formula. The more pavement you have, the safer it can be, because it gives you a chance to stop your car."
Brad Keselowski: "I have kind of beaten this drum and I feel like I am beating it again — the cars are turning into all aero and having aerodynamic grip to have any speed, and in that sense they have become incredibly fragile and kind of turned a corner to being more similar to Indy car. I am not a fan of that. I feel like stock-car racing should be about contact, and right now if you rub fenders with someone at a track above 100 mph, you are going to lose about 10- to 20-percent of your cars performance which is more than enough to take away your ability to win a race. I don’t like that. Whether it is splitter torn off in the grass or a wheel flair getting a nick in it, I think that is not healthy for stock-car racing, but it is the rules as they lie right now."
Matt Kenseth: "I think if you look back on a decade ago to now I’d say there’s so many more paved areas than there ever was before. Now I can understand not wanting to pave the whole thing and wanting infield grass in the tri-oval that looks good and all that. It’d be hard to take it all out of there, still. It wouldn’t be appealing (to get rid of the grass), but certainly you don’t really want to get in the grass going very fast."