DAYTONA BEACH, FLA. — Fifteen years after Dale Earnhardt's death at Daytona International Speedway, NASCAR drivers are still clamoring for safety improvements.
Six-time champion Jimmie Johnson, reigning champ Kyle Busch and others want pavement to replace the lush grass located near racing surfaces. Austin Dillon would like to see more protection around his feet inside the car. Ryan Newman believes tracks should install outside pit road walls to better protect crews.
"There's a fix for everything," Newman said. "It's just a matter of spending time, money and effort to do it right."
NASCAR certainly has taken significant strides in safety since Earnhardt's death on Feb. 18, 2001. "The Intimidator" crashed hard into the outside wall of Turn 4 during the final lap of the Daytona 500, rocking the racing world and forcing NASCAR to take an immediate and aggressive stance on better protecting drivers.
The governing body opened a new research and development center in Charlotte, North Carolina, the following year with safety being the main mission.
Head-and-neck restraints, six-point safety harnesses, improved fuel cells, the Car of Tomorrow and soft-wall technology are just some of the enhancements that followed.
Nonetheless, safety has been at the forefront of the Daytona 500 in recent years. Kyle Larson and Dillon had harrowing wrecks that sent pieces of debris spewing into the grandstand. Just last year, Busch broke his right leg and his left foot when his car slammed into a concrete wall during the Xfinity Series opener at Daytona.
Busch missed the 500 and 10 more races, yet a midsummer hot streak propelled him into the Chase and his first Cup title. Daytona has since installed more than 8,500 feet of energy-absorbing SAFER barriers.
Still, drivers want more. Getting rid of grass seems to top many of their wish lists.
Busch's Toyota slid through a grassy area near Turn 1 at Daytona, and the grass did little to slow down his car. Daytona responded by putting down about 200,000 square feet of asphalt, most of that in the area of Busch's crash.
But last Saturday in the exhibition Sprint Unlimited, Johnson went for a wild ride when his No. 48 Chevrolet spun and slid through the grassy infield.
"I've been trying to bang that drum for a long time," Johnson said. "I've talked to track owners, operators about it. I've mentioned it to (media) 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. 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.
"Grass doesn't slow you down like asphalt does. ... My opinion, grass belongs on golf courses. We need asphalt around here to slow the cars down, control the cars."
At Daytona, the grass is not only aesthetically pleasing but it helps drain the track during and after rain storms and also serves as home to other events throughout the year.
"Right now, that balancing act of providing the right kind of safety and fitting with everything we do, we just have to balance all those things," track president Joie Chitwood III said.
Newman and others pointed to the lack of a protective wall between the track and pit road as another potential problem. But Chitwood said building a wall there creates other problems, most notably how to negate the hard edges of the wall at each end.
"There are a lot of challenges with that," Chitwood said. "There are some tracks with a wall that separates pit lane from the track; there's a lot without. I think that's a good debate for a lot of knowledgeable people about safety right now."
Dillon has a different concern. He wants the area around his feet to be more enclosed and protected, which possibly could prevent what happened to Busch's legs and feet a year ago at Daytona.
"I would like them to implement that pretty fast," Dillon said. "The faster, the better. It adds a little bit more weight to the car, but for me, I think we'd give up weight any day to make the car safer. They tested it, and it was better. They've shown the tests. I think the faster we can get all of our team owners and competition directors to implement that, it's going to help."