Ryan Newman's Daytona 500 crash another reminder of how tenuous NASCAR's line between safety and thrills can be

NASCAR’s most significant safety improvements have come in the wake of major crashes. Restrictor plates were added to cars’ engines at Talladega and Daytona in 1988 after Bobby Allison’s scary crash. Head and neck restraints became mandatory in the wake of Dale Earnhardt’s fatal crash in the 2001 Daytona 500. Energy-absorbing SAFER barriers were added to inside walls and other unprotected barriers in the wake of violent wrecks that injured Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch less than two years apart.

And now, in the wake of Ryan Newman’s frightening and fiery crash on the final lap of the Daytona 500 on Monday night, there will undoubtedly be more safety improvements coming in the future as NASCAR dissects what happened as Newman’s car was blasted by Corey LaJoie’s as it spun upside down on the track.

[Denny Hamlin wins Daytona 500 marred by Ryan Newman’s crash]

It’s fair to believe that Newman’s injuries aren’t believed to be life-threatening by doctors largely because of NASCAR’s safety advancements of the past 20 years. The Car of Tomorrow introduced in 2007 provided a sturdier chassis for cars to survive crashes and pushed drivers four inches closer to the middle of the car than from the driver’s side door. Had that move to tweak the cockpit never happened 13 years ago, Newman could have been positioned even closer to where LaJoie’s front bumper hit.

Ryan Newman's car after he was extricated from his vehicle by safety workers on Monday. (AP Photo/David Graham)

But racing can never be too safe. NASCAR knows that all too well. And it needs to take that knowledge and apply it in as many ways that it can going forward.

With a new car set to be implemented in 2021, NASCAR has the opportunity to make changes to safety features in both the near- and long-term. The specs of the new car haven’t been fully finalized yet. If NASCAR sees something it needs to change in the immediate aftermath of Newman’s crash, it could feasibly make adjustments ahead of the car’s rollout. Could the roof area somehow be stronger or reinforced? Is there anything else that can be done to minimize the chances of a car getting airborne?

The car shouldn’t be the only safety focus, however. Newman’s crash is a prime opportunity for NASCAR to examine the feasibility of the current style of racing that permeates Daytona and Talladega. Are demolition derbies that put competitors’ health at an increased risk really worth it any longer?

Newman’s crash was the fifth crash in the final 24 laps of Monday’s rain-delayed race. The first crash involved 19 cars and came when Brad Keselowski’s car got turned head-on into the backstretch wall because of a wayward bump from Aric Almirola, who was getting pushed forward by Joey Logano. It was a wreck that started much like Newman’s but involved a hell of a lot more cars. And Keselowski’s car didn’t flip over.

The last five points races at Daytona and Talladega have included 15 crashes involving five or more cars and every driver in last weekend’s 18-car Busch Clash exhibition race field was involved in at least one wreck. It’s a torrid crashing pace that’s given NASCAR plenty of highlights to use in promotions. And, until Monday night, it’s been an acceleration of a crashing trend that has included every driver walking away with no significant injuries.

Ryan Newman's car flipped over after he hit the wall. (AP Photo/Terry Renna)

That no-injury streak is thanks in no small part to the car safety and wall improvements that NASCAR has made over the last decade-plus. But race-winner Hamlin admitted after climbing from his car that “I think we take for granted sometimes how safe the cars are.”

He’s probably right. There was a lot of luck involved in that streak too.

The bottom side of Austin Dillon’s car is what hit the Daytona catchfence first in 2015 and not the cockpit. Kyle Larson’s car just missed clearing the inside backstretch wall and going straight into the fence at Talladega in 2019. Not to mention the myriad other crashes that could have had a different outcome with a slightly different variable or two.

The line between safety and thrilling racing at Daytona and Talladega is a tenuous one. The restrictor plates that NASCAR used to slow the field in the wake of Allison’s crash bunched it up and created the early stages of the pack racing that fans see today. And nearly every rules change NASCAR has made in the last decade-plus at Daytona and Talladega to tweak the racing has been made with the goal of thrilling pack racing in mind because drivers have been able to walk away from their cars in the era after Earnhardt’s death.

It’s time to dial that desire for pack racing down a notch or two. Drivers mentioned all week in the lead-up to the Daytona 500 about how closing rates with NASCAR’s current Daytona and Talladega rules were so much faster. Cars caught up to those ahead of them much quicker and didn’t encounter a bubble of air when they got bumper-to-bumper. That means the blocks that drivers throw on each other have to be earlier while the shoves from behind are harder.

So far, that’s proven to be a bad combination. Just ask Logano, a driver whose blocking led to a crash at the front of the field in the clash and whose pushing led to the 19-car pileup Monday night. Or Blaney, who simply tried to push Newman to the checkered flag and wound up sending him into the wall.

Newman’s crash has pushed NASCAR too far over that tenuous line and into dangerous territory. It’s now up to the sanctioning body to reposition itself. Examining and adjusting the current and future cars’ safety features are a good start. But there’s also a lot more that can be done.

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Nick Bromberg is a writer for Yahoo Sports.

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