Dale Earnhardt Jr.: Safety has improved in NASCAR, but it can always get even better

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Given Kyle Busch’s wreck into an unprotected concrete wall at Daytona International Speedway last month, Dale Earnhardt Jr. said he believes NASCAR must remain vigilant in the initiative to add more SAFER barriers at tracks.

“I think the changes that were made in the last 10-15 years to help safety have been great,” he said Friday at Martinsville Speedway. “We put barriers where we felt like were common places where cars hit, but as we found out over the last couple years specifically, we’ll find all the empty spots where there aren’t any barriers.

“NASCAR has taken some steps to make it right, and the tracks are taking some steps to move it along. You never can be safe enough, you never can do enough to be safe and keep the competitors and fans safe. You never can do enough, so you never should stop trying.

“Unfortunately, it takes an accident like that (Busch’s wreck, where he suffered a broken right leg and left foot) to wake everybody up and make things happen.”

Some tracks have begun to make additional safety improvements and install more SAFER barriers, most notably Daytona.

Track president Joie Chitwood III said after Busch’s accident that “Daytona International Speedway is going to install SAFER barrier on every inch at this property. This is not going to happen again.”

“I know NASCAR was very disappointed that there wasn’t a SAFER barrier on the wall at Daytona and that Kyle was injured,” Earnhardt said. “It’s really unfortunate to have to go through that whole process to really get this thing fired back up and get people moving on it. At the same time, I appreciate all that they’re doing.”

As a temporary measure, racetracks that have played host to recent races, such as Atlanta Motor Speedway, Phoenix International Raceway and Auto Club Speedway, installed additional tire packs in areas where concrete retaining walls remained unprotected.

Martinsville Speedway also has installed additional tire packs for this weekend’s race.

“It’s better than the (unprotected) wall, for sure, but nothing’s better at this point than a SAFER barrier,” Earnhardt said. “I guess their intent over time is to get a SAFER barrier where they feel like they need it. And until then, we’ll have these tires in those areas.”

While SAFER barrier installation has taken on a sense of urgency in the sport in light of Busch’s wreck, Earnhardt said there should be continued research into improvements in other areas, including head-and-neck restraint devices and headrests.

His father, Dale Earnhardt Sr., was killed in a last-lap wreck at the 2001 Daytona 500 due to blunt force injuries to his head.

That accident prompted NASCAR to embark upon its most comprehensive safety initiatives, which included head-and-neck restraint devices.

“You look back at how stripped down the safety was inside the cars years ago and we didn’t worry about it then,” Earnhardt said. “I think over time, you get a little complacent. You do a lot to get better, to get safer, and then maybe you get complacent and think you have enough. There’s just never enough. We should always keep trying.

“We’ve done a ton of stuff over the last several years that we need to be proud of, thankful for and appreciate of. … We’ve come a long, long way. We have headrests wrapped around us, harnesses, six-, seven- nine-point harnesses, we’ve got straps going everywhere. We can hardly be comfortable in the car with so many straps down there.

“You’ve just got to keep trying, I guess, is the message we’re all learning, to keep trying to improve all the time.”

Earnhardt believes there isn’t an end end point on safety.

“We don’t know this today but we’re probably only 1 foot in a 100-yard race on how good these headrests and head restraints can get,” he said. “It looks great and is doing a good job now, but there’s so much more to understand and improve on these things.

“We’ve only just scratched the surface on how safe the headrests can be, and where we are with harnesses, we keep improving and adding and changing that.

“This stuff could look completely foreign to us 20 years from now. I don’t think any of it is going to stay the same and it shouldn’t.

“I think we should always try to improve it. One day we’ll look back at what we have now and say, ‘Man, that’s crazy, can you believe we raced like that?.’ ”

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