By JENNA FRYER
AP Auto Racing Writer
CHARLOTTE, N.C. — A day after a caution froze the field on the final lap at Talladega Superspeedway, a caller complained to SiriusXM NASCAR radio he’d been robbed of his right to see a race to the finish line.
The gripe could not have been more off base.
In a season that will be remembered for a rash of driver injuries, not throwing a caution would have been negligent of NASCAR.
Denny Hamlin missed four races this year with a fractured vertebra, and Michael Annett was out three months with a fractured sternum. Tony Stewart, who broke his leg in a sprint car crash, has been sidelined since August and underwent a third surgery earlier this month.
Three-time Indianapolis 500 winner Dario Franchitti was just released from a hospital last week after fracturing two vertebrae, his right ankle and suffering a nasty concussion in an Oct. 6 IndyCar race, and a crash in Saturday night’s season finale left Justin Wilson hospitalized with a pelvic fracture.
So when Austin Dillon’s car went airborne on the last lap Sunday, just when fans were holding their breath waiting for a mad dash to the checkered flag, NASCAR had no choice but to throw the caution after Dillon’s car came back down to the track and was tagged hard by Casey Mears.
“The safety for our drivers and our fans is the most important thing to us,” NASCAR vice president of competition Robin Pemberton said Monday. “There comes a time when you see what happens on the race track to move safety equipment and attend to the drivers involved.”
That this is even being discussed, and there are people complaining about NASCAR’s decision, is appalling.
It was just a day earlier that the Truck Series race ended with a 12-vehicle crash that saw Miguel Paludo flip upside down and Kyle Busch take a massive hit to the inside wall at Talladega.
Darrell Wallace Jr. admitted afterward that the wreck “scared the hell out of me.”
“Man, it makes you want to go 10 miles under the speed limit in your regular car because pushing 200 or whatever we’re doing and wrecking it hard, I’d die (doing this often),” the 19-year-old said. “That’s scary. I’m freaking myself out again. I just couldn’t breathe.”
And what did Busch say after the race?
“You know when you see the checkered flag and you see things going on in front of you, you just keep your foot on it and I drove it all the way to the start-finish (line),” Busch said.
He’s absolutely right. Drivers don’t get off the gas with the finish in sight, not even when another car is sailing over the top of them. It’s on NASCAR to back them down, and at Talladega, where the scramble to the finish line is always chaotic, NASCAR did the absolute right thing on Sunday.
To some fans, this wasn’t fair or consistent.
Dillon wasn’t hurt, and he was able to drive his car back to the garage. After Mears hit him, it appeared the rest of the pack cleared the accident scene and could have raced on without coming into contact with Dillon.
Most important, though, was that it was Dale Earnhardt Jr. in second place and patiently waiting to attempt a last-lap pass of Jamie McMurray for the win. When the caution came out, the field was frozen, and now nobody will ever know what Junior had up his sleeve.
It doesn’t matter.
This isn’t a blood sport, drivers aren’t Roman gladiators, and there comes a time when a race is simply over.
“I think there are people who fail to see the danger in race car driving anymore,” Wilson said Monday from his hospital bed in California. “But we’ve lost some drivers and quite a few people have been hurt. Maybe it isn’t as safe as we think it is?
“These days it does take more of a freak accident to get injured, but we can’t forget the protocol of what to do in those situations, whether it’s Daytona when fans get injured or Talladega when a car takes off and gets hit pretty hard when it lands,” he said. “They’ve got to stick to the protocol in looking after drivers and fans.”
Stewart’s injury in a sprint car crash was yet another blow this year to a community that had already lost NASCAR driver Jason Leffler in a June accident in New Jersey and Kramer Williamson, who died from injuries suffered in an accident in Pennsylvania the day before Stewart’s wreck. Last week was the two-year anniversary of Dan Wheldon’s death in the 2011 IndyCar season finale.
Stewart, a three-time NASCAR champion, became somewhat consumed with sprint car safety following his accident, vowing to be part of the process to lift the black cloud hanging over the sport.
“There’s going to be something positive come out, just like in NASCAR,” he said, referring to the way NASCAR overhauled its safety measures following the 2001 death of Dale Earnhardt.
Nobody wants any more driver deaths or injuries. So when NASCAR or any other sanctioning body calls for a caution to check on the well-being of a driver, to slow down the field, or to protect a participant or a fan, the race to the finish line no longer matters.