Talladega Superspeedway provided another nail-biting NASCAR ending on Sunday in the latest of a a long line of heart-stopping finishes. Brad Keselowski charged to the front on the final lap, leading a gaggle of cars running at 200 miles per hour, three abreast to the line. A packed house cheered loudly as the top 15 cars were separated by less than a second, easily the most competitive race in the Cup Series this year.
But the finish couldn't erase a nasty wreck from earlier in the race. Joey Logano, the 2018 NASCAR Cup champion, was lucky to still be standing after his race ended on lap 60 in a shower of sparks, upside down with pieces of roll cage sitting on top of his head.
In Talladega's double-edged sword, terrific racing often turns terrifying in seconds. Logano's wreck was reminiscent of the 2020 Daytona 500 finish, a crash that left Ryan Newman hospitalized for days. Newman's full recovery became somewhat of a minor miracle after he lost consciousness and suffer a bruised brain.
In this case, Logano escaped serious injury. But the NASCAR star is serious about pushing for change after an incident where he felt "lucky to be alive."
"It is a product of this racing," Logano said. "I am wondering when we are going to stop, because this is dangerous doing what we are doing. I just got a roll bar in my head. That is not okay. We have to fix it … someone already got hurt and we are still doing it, so that's not real smart.
"At the same time, I am appreciative of driving a car that is this safe … so I can live to talk about it and go again. I got lucky that I didn't get hit while I was in the air."
Logano's push to fix this problem is nothing new.
When speeds reached over 210 mph, in 1987, Bobby Allison lost control and nearly launched his No. 22 car into the grandstands. Terrified, NASCAR developed restrictor plates, slowing the cars down while creating the modern draft we see at Talladega and Daytona International Speedway.
The parity produced by the plates (now tapered spacers) keeps nearly the entire 40-car field stuck together like superglue. The result was photo finishes, Cinderella winners and, let's face it, eye-popping wrecks which keep Talladega a can't miss race on the calendar. It was a crown jewel event back in the day, one of four trophies that made drivers eligible for a $1 million bonus from former title sponsor Winston.
But no matter the fixes or chassis NASCAR brings to Talladega, the scary wrecks have never stopped:
- Ken Schrader got a black eye from this tumble in 1995
- There was Carl Edwards slamming the catchfence in 2009, injuring seven
- Ryan Newman went on a wild ride in a manner eerily similar to Logano
- Kyle Larson flipped in this race just two years ago
You get the picture: upside-down racecars at Talladega are nothing new.
Stopping it is not rocket science, though: spread the cars out and slow them down. Neither one is conducive to putting butts in seats that were empty for months due to COVID-19.
"If I'm a fan," second-place finisher William Byron said. "I think it's really entertaining, so you've got to balance that."
It's all fun and games until someone gets hurt. We saw that play out on a national stage with Dale Earnhardt's Daytona 500 wreck in 2001. But no NASCAR driver has been killed since, a 20-year streak that gives you the impression racing itself is 100% safe (spoiler alert: it's not. Derrick Lancaster is currently in an Alabama hospital on a ventilator after hitting the wall during an ARCA race at Talladega on April 24.)
Every sport has to balance the risks with maintaining a product that keeps people tuning in. It's a business after all, right? The real changes needed here would take Talladega off the schedule or have the field racing on its infield road course. Will as many fans really buy a ticket for that?
Twelve years ago, I talked to Edwards after his violent wreck, where he said, "NASCAR won't change restrictor plate racing until somebody [else] gets killed."
The sport invited him down to Daytona to chat about making changes for safety.
"The whole problem … is not a speed problem," he said then. "With that type of racing, you are going to have more accidents, more potential for things to happen. It's a real tough situation … and I don't know the answer. It's something that's been debated by many drivers much more experienced than myself, and I don't know how we're going to fix it. But hopefully, we will."
A dozen years later, Logano's now in that very same spot. And there is still no fix. Is it time to admit there's never going to be one?
Green: Michael McDowell. Third place might as well be a win for this Daytona 500 Cinderella who's now tied his career high for top-10 finishes (four) 10 races into a 36-race season. McDowell would have won, too, had he timed his last-second run on Keselowski just a bit earlier.
Yellow: Bubba Wallace. Sixteen laps led and the first stage win of his career finally got Wallace, 23XI Racing and Michael Jordan some face time up front. Added bonus: surviving Logano's spinning car landing directly across the No. 23 Toyota's hood. Now, the key is to learn how to close, as 19th on the lap that matters (the last one) just doesn't cut it.
Red: Kurt Busch. The 2004 Cup Series champion has now gone seven straight races without a top-10 finish. Falling out of playoff position after 'Dega, Busch has led just three laps all year as whispers remain he's retiring from NASCAR after the season.
Speeding Ticket: Denny Hamlin. NASCAR's dominant driver of 2021 finally saw his six-race top-5 streak in pack racing come to an end. Busted for speeding not once, but twice, the penalties dropped him off the lead lap and forced him into desperation mode at the end of stage two. It was no surprise, then Lady Luck finally caught up to the No. 11 car, turning him hard into the outside wall after contact with teammate Martin Truex Jr. The 32nd-place finish was the point leader's first outside the top 11 all season.
Take one more look at Logano's wreck and follow it all the way through. Spun out while trying to avoid it was none other than 'Dega winner Brad Keselowski.
The No. 2 Ford team did a great job repairing the car, Kes bided his time and led only the final lap in securing his sixth career 'Dega victory.