Did You Notice? … Jim Utter’s comments on SIRIUS XM Tuesday morning expressing confusion about how more wasn’t made of steering wheels coming off race cars after Talladega? One of Motorsport.com‘s main editors made reference to the fact there was an uproar about restrictor plate racing safety, an issue that’s been front and center to various degrees for nearly 30 years while a steering wheel came off in Dale Earnhardt, Jr.’s hand.
The incident, which happened after Earnhardt returned from crash repairs, could have been devastating at a high-speed plate track. NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver was lucky to have it happen under caution at pace car speed. Teammate Jimmie Johnson wasn’t so lucky at Phoenix back in March; he totaled his No. 48 Chevrolet when the steering wheel came off during qualifying. It was a disturbing moment similar to a throttle being stuck, the type of high-risk, bad-angle impact that killed promising talents Adam Petty and Kenny Irwin back in 2000.
I’ve been wondering why more hasn’t been made of it too. My theory on it is that the drivers, while spooked by the steering wheel problems, believe that’s a part of the car firmly within their control. It’s at least partially, if not fully, the driver’s responsibility, to make sure the wheel is in the right position and locked before heading on the racetrack. Both Johnson and Earnhardt took the blame for their failures and believed it was a fixable problem if they simply took more time to double check their wheel before driving.
Compare that to the drama of plate racing, forced parity four times a year in which some drivers believe the outcome is ultimately beyond their control. We saw that for Blake Koch Sunday; he ran a solid race and was positioned for a top 10 in the XFINITY Series before contact between leaders Elliott Sadler and Joey Logano sent Logano’s No. 22 Ford throttling right into the center of his path. There was nothing Koch could do to stop the contact. He was helpless, destined to slam into the No. 22 with speeds greater than 150 mph.
Of course, that was one of the cleaner incidents on a weekend where multiple drivers and cars found themselves upside down. But it’s also a clear illustration of how helpless drivers feel in these packs. Accidents may be unavoidable in racing but nowhere is it harder to escape them than during the final laps at Talladega. Hitting a car during Bristol’s August night race? Typically, it’s angled contact at no more than 120 mph. That extra 60 mph of speed at Talladega makes a big difference; the lack or reaction time creates far more head-on collisions. The risk is always there yet the magnetism of the draft gives you two choices down the stretch. You’re either fighting for the win, knowing a hard hit could be just seconds away, or you’re running at the back, falling off the pack and just hoping to claim a top-15 finish by survival.
Clearly, two steering wheels in two months is nothing to sneeze at. The fact it came from the same camp (Hendrick Motorsports) is irrelevant over the long run; all it takes is one steering wheel off at a track like Charlotte and you’ve got a guy sent head-on into a SAFER barrier at speeds slightly higher than we saw at Talladega. Any type of additional rule, perhaps one forcing a NASCAR official to check off the steering wheel being locked before the race and/or after crash repairs would be good for the sport.
It just pales in comparison for drivers to a large-scale draft many feel is completely beyond their control. That’s why the focus, rightly or wrongly, will always remain with the drama of plate racing over any other safety issue post-Daytona or Talladega. It’s been that way since the early 1990s and no matter how many wrecks there are, one or 10, there’s going to be a vocal group ready to swear off this type of racing for good. That disgust alone will fuel controversy, both from the fans of those drivers, the sponsors connected to those teams and a group of their peers who feel 180 degrees differently (likely the ones who wind up sitting inside Victory Lane that day).
Did You Notice? … The Associated Press is reporting damage from Sunday’s race at Talladega could reach $10 million across the grid. The estimate includes a $500,000 loss for each car that was completely totaled. Half a million? I remember Dave Marcis being able to run the full schedule as an independent for only about $650,000 in primary sponsorship during the late 1980s and early 1990s.
Could you imagine if you totaled a car every race of the season? We’re talking $18 million in damage. The owners have made great progress on cost cutting the past few seasons but more clearly needs to be done. No wonder why you don’t see new faces knocking down doors behind the scenes to own a race team.
Did You Notice? … That despite all the good vibes surrounding Joe Gibbs Racing this season Matt Kenseth is still without a top-5 finish? Kenseth is also the only one of the 16 Chase-eligible drivers (if the season ended now) to score a goose egg in that column. Kenseth’s three teammates, by comparison, have combined for five of 10 Cup wins; each of them have led the standings at some point during 2016. Kenseth? He led the second-to-last lap of this year’s Daytona 500, was in front halfway through the last one and then nothing has seemed to go right ever since.
What’s fascinating is Kenseth has still led 347 laps, good for fourth-best on the Cup circuit, and his average start of 8.1 is tied for second behind teammate Denny Hamlin. The No. 20 team could have, in theory won at least two races this season; instead, it’ssaddled with only two top-10 finishes.
No wonder why Kenseth can’t get over Joey Logano. He really hasn’t had any type of on-track performance that could sweep their Kansas contact under the rug since last fall.
Did You Notice? … Quick hits before taking off….
- Trevor Bayne is currently in position to make the Chase after 10 races. Hendrick’s Kasey Kahne is not. Repeat: Trevor Bayne, he who went the entire 2015 season without a top-5 finish, is in better position than one of HMS’ flagship cars. Could Jack Roush’s insistence to stick with the youngster finally be in position to pay off?
- Ty Dillon ran a strong sixth in relief of Tony Stewart at Talladega. Ryan Newman and Paul Menard were nowhere to be found by comparison. Turns out Dillon needs a full-time Sprint Cup ride in 2017, and grandfather Richard Childress is struggling to find sponsorship to expand. You know who Mr. Childress employs? Why, Ryan Newman and Paul Menard. Both of them are in contract years and both of them are currently on the outside of the Chase looking in. Dillon was coy at Talladega, saying “interesting things” are happening for him in ’17. Might you think this situation bears watching?
- We happen to be headed to Kansas this weekend. Anyone remembers what happened there last fall? Perhaps it was the perfect time for Kenseth-Logano to flare up again after all.
About the author
The author of Did You Notice? (Wednesdays) Tom spends his time overseeing Frontstretch’s 40+ staff members as its majority owner and Editor-in-Chief. Based outside Philadelphia, Bowles is a two-time Emmy winner in NASCAR television and has worked in racing production with FOX, TNT, and ESPN while appearing on-air for SIRIUS XM Radio and FOX Sports 1's former show, the Crowd Goes Wild. He most recently consulted with SRX Racing, helping manage cutting-edge technology and graphics that appeared on their CBS broadcasts during 2021 and 2022.
You can find Tom’s writing here, at CBSSports.com and Athlonsports.com, where he’s been an editorial consultant for the annual racing magazine for 15 years.