By Jack Payton
Jack Payton is a car nut and motorsports fanatic in the purest form. He loves to write about everything gear related, and rebuilt his first engine at 15. He works as a freelance writer for the online tire retailer tires-easy.com. In his spare time he enjoys cruising, following NASCAR, and collecting vinyl.
Racing automobiles in tight quarters at speeds exceeding 200 miles per hour is inherently dangerous, particularly when those vehicles are being piloted by hardline competitors with unrelenting temperaments and millions of dollars are at stake.
So it’s not shocking to know that motorsports are the cause of countless fatalities worldwide each year – in fact, the only surprise is how frequently drivers walk away largely unscathed from seemingly catastrophic crashes. Thanks to massive safety overhauls instituted in the wake of Dale Earnhardt’s death at Daytona in 2001, there have been no fatalities on the NASCAR circuit for over a decade.
Despite the flirtation with death that comes with every crash – or maybe because of it – the potential for large scale wrecks in NASCAR is an aspect of the sport that fuels excitement and tension for fans and participants alike.
Let’s take a look at some of the biggest and best crashes in NASCAR during the last five years:
5) Michael McDowell – Texas Motor Speedway – 2008
It doesn’t take bumper to bumper racing to cause near-death experiences on the racetrack. As Michael McDowell proved in 2008, even when a driver has the track to themselves, one wrong move can set off a deadly chain of events. During qualifying prior to the 2008 Samsung 500, McDowell got loose heading into a corner and lost control. His vehicle beelined into the barrier wall with astonishing force – data later showed that he went from 165 to zero miles per hour in one foot -- flipping onto its top before barrel rolling about a dozen times as flames and metal flew liberally and the crowd gasped in horror.
Simply put, McDowell had no business walking away from that wreck. None. Yet, moments after his car skidded to a stop, there he was popping out of the tangled wreckage and walking away, waving to the spectators.
The McDowell wreck was hailed as an affirmation that the new safety measures – which included a completely redesigned vehicle interior and barrier walls designed to absorb the blow – had proven effective at reducing the danger of fatalities on the racetrack.
4) Jeff Gordon – Las Vegas Motor Speedway – 2008
Jeff Gordon had been running well in the UAW-Dodge 400 in the spring of 2008, but during a frantic restart with only four laps to go he clipped the back of Matt Kenseth’s car and spiraled out of control, hammering the inside wall. The collision decimated the entire front end of Gordon’s vehicle and the radiator came flying out, landing some 50 feet away from the rest of the wreckage.
Gordon walked away with minimal injuries, despite the fact that the collision occurred in a spot where they had not placed the new SAFER barriers, which he loudly and effectively railed against following the wreck, causing NASCAR to institute a policy that ensured all walls had the shock-absorbing barriers installed.
3) Jimmy Johnson – Charlotte Motor Sports – 2011
While accidents where vehicles go airborne or flip multiple times are often the most visually alarming, it is the head-on wrecks that seem to be the most likely to kill a driver. The crash that took Dale Earnhardt’s life in 2001 didn’t appear to be any worse than any other crash, but that jarring impact of the wall has again and again proved deadly.
In 2011, there was another of these wrecks that could have proven similar, as Jimmy Johnson’s wreck during the final laps of the Charlotte 500 in 2011 was ominously similar to “The Intimidator’s” fatal crash ten years prior. Johnson lost control and ran headlong into the wall, but again was able to walk away with only a few bumps and bruises. The wreck was also significant, because it effectively ended Johnson’s hopes at a sixth straight NASCAR championship.
2) Carl Edwards – Talladega Superspeedway – 2009
The most exciting wrecks are those that directly affect the outcome of the race and come when two or more drivers are aggressively vying for position late in a race, doing everything they possibly can to win the race. Now, this excitement is tempered drastically when the crash results in a driver going airborne, crashing into the top of the fence which sends debris hurtling into the stands.
Such was the case in 2009, when Brad Keselowski and Carl Edwards battled in the final lap of the Aaron’s 499 in Talladega in 2009. Keselowski attempted to pass Edwards on the high side of the track, but Edwards effectively blocked that route, so he attempted to squirt down below him. When Edwards’ blocking maneuver this time came a bit late, Keselowski’s front end nipped Edwards’ rear causing the #99 car to lose control. Edwards’ car soared into the air, battering the catch fence and sending rubble into the stands – seven persons sustained injuries – before mercifully coming to a stop with the front end totally demolished.
Keselowski cruised to a victory, while an angry Edwards crawled out of his car and amused the crowd by sprinting a couple hundred feet to the finish line.
1) Brad Keselowski – Atlanta Motor Speedway – 2010
When is an accident not an accident? When a revenge-fueled driver that is effectively out of the race comes back on the track hundreds of laps down for the sole purpose of seeking vengeance by wrecking his adversary.
They say that “revenge is a dish best served cold” and Edwards had been allowing his plans for retaliation against Keselowski to sit on ice for a year. But when the two got mixed up early in the in the Kobalt Tools 500, causing Edwards to sustain minor damage that sent him to the garage and ruined his day, Edwards’ yen for revenge reached a boiling point. He returned to the track after his vehicle was retooled – as drivers sometimes do even though they are many laps down – and on lap 323 found himself near Keselowski again.
Edwards wasted no time in intentionally wrecking his foe and in a manner eerily similar to their incident a year before, the wreck caused Keselowski to go airborne and causing massive damage to the front driver’s side of the vehicle.
Keselowski was naturally furious, and had some choice words for Carl after the race, as did NASCAR officials who placed Edwards on probation following the incident.
Edwards, though, was largely undaunted by the criticism.
“Every person has to decide what code they want to live by,” he said. “Hopefully this explains mine.”
Loud and clear, Carl. Loud and Clear.
Back to the Auto Racing Newsfeed