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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (AP) — Ryan Preece might not recognize the spot where his harrowing crash started at Daytona International Speedway last August.
NASCAR paved over the grassy area that seemingly caused Preece’s car to become airborne and roll about a dozen times during the 400-mile summer race at the famed track.
Preece was able to climb out of his mangled No. 41 Ford with help before emergency workers put him on a gurney and into a waiting ambulance. He spent the night at Halifax Health for observation but gained clearance to fly home the next day.
Despite significant safety improvements over the past two decades — culminating with the debut of the Next Gen car in 2022 — stock cars have shown a tendency to launch and flip or roll when sliding from asphalt to grass. Drivers almost universally have called for more pavement in key spots at high-speed tracks.
Charlotte Motor Speedway changed its frontstretch grass to artificial turf, and other tracks have added asphalt.
The newly paved area at Daytona focuses on the entrance to a backstretch chicane called “the bus stop” that’s used in the track’s 12-turn, 3.56-mile road-course layout. It was noticeably changed in time for an IMSA test in December and for the Rolex 24 Hours at Daytona race last month.
A small “island” of grass and another patch to the exit of the chicane remain.
Preece will get an up-close look at the changes when Daytona 500 qualifying begins Wednesday night. He already praised how his car protected him.
“I think that was probably about as vicious of a wreck as you can get, and to see the car really hold up to those conditions, it makes you feel better as a race car driver,” Preece said. “But obviously in our sport, we continue to evolve and continue to try and make things better, so it was also nice to see some things that we could continue to work on.”
Preece and Stewart-Haas Racing teammate Chase Briscoe made contact on the backstretch, and Preece’s car turned hard left and then went into an uncontrollable barrel roll as soon as it slid from asphalt to grass. The car came to a halt on all four tires, with some minor damage to the roll cage.
Preece leaving the wreck mostly unscathed was a testament to NASCAR's safety improvements. The Next Gen car was criticized following its debut in 2022 because rear-impact collisions wreaked havoc on drivers. Kurt Busch suffered a life-changing concussion during a qualifying crash at Pocono Raceway, and Hendrick Motorsports driver Alex Bowman missed five races because of a concussion.
Multiple other drivers complained about the violence felt during what they considered routine hits and wondered if they too had suffered head trauma.
NASCAR spent much of the offseason before 2023 testing and tweaking the car to try to limit the G-forces delivered to drivers. There were no driver concussions reported in 2023.
Preece said he’s looking forward to driving back through the Daytona tunnel for the first time since his wreck.
“At the same time, I want to be able to drive out of that tunnel on my own at the end of the day,” he added.
And he has no trepidation about “the risks that we take.”
“I chose this profession for a reason," he added. "So if I’m afraid to drive a race car and get the max potential I can, then I should probably retire and just quit.”
AP auto racing: https://apnews.com/hub/auto-racing