POCONO, P.A. _ While Greg Biffle was able to score the win on Sunday in Pocono, it was a scary wreck involving Elliott Sadler was the biggest story emerging from the day. The incident showed the success of safety innovations implemented by NASCAR, but also called into question those lacking at the Pocono Raceway.
With weather approaching and the laps ticking away, the action on the track heated up and the racing in the middle of the pack began to intensify. As Jeff Gordon and Juan Pablo Montoya battled for the top-spot, Kurt Busch and Clint Bowyer raced side-by-side for position.
Looking to bump draft his way through, Jimmie Johnson gave the No. 2 Dodge a shot in the back bumper. The contact sent Busch sideways across the track and into the outside wall. Busch slid back across the track and through the grass, hitting the inside wall hard on the driver side. While Busch’s hit was hard, it was Sadler that gave everyone one of the biggest scares in years.
Behind Busch’s wreck, Elliott Sadler slowed down for the crash ahead of him. As he slowed, Sadler’s No. 19 Ford was hit in the rear by Richard Petty Motorsports teammate AJ Allmendinger. The car shot through the grass at a high rate of speed, hitting the inside wall head on. The force of the impact sent Sadler forward in his seat and ripped the motor from the car. Cleary shaken up, Sadler slowly climbed from the wreckage under his own power, but immediately laid on the track beside his car until safety workers arrived.
Lucky to be alive, Sadler was treated and released from the infield care center thanks in large part to safety innovations such as the car of tomorrow, improved driver seats and the head and neck restraint system.
“I saw smoke and some cars sideways up in front of me,” Sadler said. “I didn’t know what happened until I just saw a replay in the infield care center, but they started stacking up in front of us and everybody started slowing down and I started slowing down too, and somebody ran in the back of me. I have no idea. I haven’t seen the replay, but somebody just ran into the back of us and turned us inside through the wet grass into the guardrail, so I was along for the ride. It was a very hard hit. I’m a little sore through my chest and my stomach, but that’s from where the seatbelts did their job and grabbed me and kept me in the car, so I’m thankful for that.”
For Allmendinger, this is the second time this year he has sent one of his RPM teammates on a wild ride at Pocono. On the final lap in the June race, Allmendinger raced Kasey Kahne down to the grass on the final lap. Kahne’s tires caught the grass and the No. 9 shot back across the track and was hit by a number of other cars. The impact sent Kahne into the air and nearly over the wall.
While neither incident was intentional, this is sure to cause some tension at an already contentious race shop.
"Everyone was checking up in front of me and there was tons of smoke,” Allmendinger said. “I had nowhere to go. I really hate it for Elliott and those guys. You hate to see anyone wreck, especially as hard of a hit as that. I'm really glad he's ok."
Besides the fact that Allmendinger was the one that turned Sadler, the biggest issue raised by Sadler’s wreck was the viciousness of the hit and the lack of safety innovations around the facility.
Unlike many of the tracks on the NASCAR schedule, Pocono Raceway still utilizes guard rails and earthen barriers along the inside of the track. When Sadler hit, he hit one of these barriers and, while there was more give than a conventional concrete wall, it was no SAFER barrier.
In 2002, Steve Park and Dale Earnhardt Jr. were involved in a wreck on the same straightaway. The two cars hooked together, slid through the grass and hit the guard rail and earthen barrier. Park’s car flipped over and, according to Earnhardt Jr.’s former PR rep Jade Gurss, the two both feared they would be launched into the campgrounds on the backstretch.
Along with the earthen barriers, Pocono does not have catch fences along the walls from the start of the first corner to the entrance of the Tunnel Turn. This nearly came into play during Kahne’s incident on the final lap of the June event.
Following that incident with Kahne, Greg Biffle called into question the commitment to safety of Pocono Raceway. In an interview with Sports Illustrated, Biffle said, “They're going to kill somebody there,” adding, “If they don't change that racetrack - maybe not next year, maybe not three years from now - they'll hurt somebody there.”
After his win today, Biffle again questioned the track’s safety, saying he understood times are tough financially, but the track should do more. One thing Biffle pointed to was the grass next to the racing surface.
“You know, they'll have to look at it,” he said. “I understand times are tough. We might go half a dozen races and nobody gets in that grass ever. But this is two races in a row somebody has been over there playing around.”
Track officials at Pocono Raceway are well aware of their safety issues and have vowed to change their facility for the better. In an interview with The Associated Press earlier this weekend, track president Brandon Igdalsky explained the track will install the SAFER barriers prior to next year’s events and that he would like to see the catch fence extended all the way around the track as well.
With the track’s two dates so close together, there is little feasibility for safety changes of that magnitude to take place between events. However, coming off yet another weekend in which a brutal wreck took place, and since there will be no more NASCAR events at the facility for the remainder of the year, now is the time for Pocono to step up.
While Sadler was able to walk away from Sunday’s wreck aching and sore, he is lucky to be alive. Thanks to the safety innovations mandated by NASCAR over the last nine years since the death of Dale Earnhardt Sr., Sadler was able to fly home and enjoy his time with his wife and baby boy.
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