Drivers renew push to eliminate grass near racing surface at tracks

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – With energy-absorbing barriers being added at tracks, NASCAR Sprint Cup drivers say more safety improvements still can be made.

Reigning champion Kyle Busch, six-time champion Jimmie Johnson and Ryan Newman each say that grass should be eliminated near the racing surface.

The issue returned to prominence after Johnson damaged the front of his car when he slid through the backstretch grass in last weekend’s Sprint Unlimited.

Johnson noted his crash, Newman’s barrel roll in the 2003 Daytona 500 (after sliding into the grass) and Busch’s accident in last year’s Xfinity race that sidelined him for about three months, as examples of grass playing an unnecessary role in those incidents.

“Grass belongs on golf courses,’’ Johnson said Tuesday at NASCAR Media Day at Daytona International Speedway. “We need asphalt around here to slow the cars down, control the cars.’’

Busch has been an outspoken critic of tracks having grass near the racing surface. His car skidded off the track and ran through grass before slamming head-on into a concrete wall in last year’s Xfinity season opener at Daytona. He suffered a fractured left foot and broken right leg, missing the first 11 Cup races of the season.

Busch said last year that his car left the track at 176 mph and hit the wall going 90 mph. His car skipped over the grass and didn’t slow as much as if there had been asphalt. Daytona International Speedway officials responded by paving part of that area and adding SAFER barrier to the inside wall.

Busch, who joined the nine-member drivers council this year, said the group ran out of time in last month’s meeting with NASCAR to address the issue of grass near the racing surface.

“Our next meeting is a few months from now and, hopefully, we’re able to regroup and get on that,’’ Busch said. “A lot of drivers have the same sentiment as I do. We’d like to know the explanation as to why (grass remains in certain areas) and how we can see getting rid of more of it.’’

Joie Chitwood, president of Daytona International Speedway, cited the track’s use by multiple racing series as an element to be factored when making any changes.

“Daytona is operated about 250 days a year, so we do have other forms of racing out here,’’ Chitwood said. “We have to make sure we provide everyone a good racing opportunity, whether its sports cars, whether its motorcycles. Right now that balancing act of the right kind of safety, whether its grass, whether its SAFER barrier and how it fits in everything we do, we just have to balance all of those things.

Newman said Johnson was lucky in his incident through the grass last weekend.

“If his nose would have snagged the grass wrong, the car would have flipped over and he could have ended up, if not in the lake, close to it,’’ Newman said.

Newman also said that he would like to see tracks add a wall to protect pit road. Daytona International Speedway does not have a wall because of the large section of grass in the tri-oval.

“I’ve always said that every race track should have a pit wall to protect the crews, something like Michigan, places like that,’’ he said. “There’s a lot of race tracks that we go to still (that don’t have a wall) and they’re mostly, for the better part, (Speedway Motorsports Inc.) tracks, Charlotte, Texas, Atlanta.

“You always have to play out the worst-case scenario card and we’ve seen it happen at different race tracks.’’