Recent soft-wall additions at Dover miss the mark

Rescue workers go to Danica Patrick’s car after she wrecked during practice Friday at Dover International Speedway.
Rescue workers go to Danica Patrick’s car after she wrecked during practice Friday at Dover International Speedway. Getty Images

Dover International Speedway announced this week that it had added 479 feet of SAFER barrier protection to the walls of its mile oval, just in time for this weekend’s tripleheader that includes Sunday’s AAA 400 Cup.

The additional protection covers the inside wall of backstretch and the inside wall of Turn 3.

But there still ia no energy-dissipating barrier protection on the outside frontstretch wall, which is where three cars crashed during Friday’s Cup practice – Danica Patrick hitting the wall, followed by Tony Stewart and Jamie McMurray, who had slid through oil from Patrick’s car.

McMurray appeared to hurt his elbow in the wreck. Stewart just recently recovered from a fractured spine, an injury that kept him out of the first eight races.

“I really feel bad because Jamie’s elbow hurt pretty bad and I don’t know if Tony is feeling perfect,” Patrick said.

McMurray and Stewart reportedly were OK. But the fact that they hit in a stretch that is unprotected by a SAFER barrier caused concerns.

I would take a soft wall over a hard wall any day in any situation.

Jimmie Johnson

“There is no excuse for not having” SAFER barriers, Kevin Harvick said later.

Patrick is just two weeks separated from another hard hit at Talladega, Ala., where she walked away after hitting a SAFER barrier-protected wall during the race.

“I know from the Talladega experiences I’ve had hitting the wall, it’s about twice the G-load impact when you hit a non-SAFER barrier,” Patrick said. “It shouldn’t even be a question whether or not tracks have SAFER barrier all around. It should be mandatory. It shouldn’t be a financial decision.”

In 2006, NASCAR mandated that every oval track on the Cup circuit have SAFER (which stands for “steel and foam energy reduction”) barriers.

But, despite continued incremental increases at places like Dover and at a cost of at $500 per linear foot, not every inch of every track is covered.

Since the addition of SAFER barriers and other safety measures such as the mandatory head-and-neck support system (HANS device), there have been no fatalities in NASCAR’s three national divisions since Dale Earnhardt was killed in the 2001 Daytona 500.

But Kyle Busch broke a leg and a foot when he crashed into an uncovered wall at Daytona in 2015. Austin Theriault was severely injured last fall when he hit an unprotected section of wall during a Truck series race at Las Vegas Speedway.

Dover is a shorter track than Daytona (2.5 miles) and Las Vegas (1.5 miles), so the angle a driver might hit the wall at Dover might not be as acute as on a longer track.

“The outside wall (at Dover) doesn’t bother me too much that it doesn’t have a SAFER barrier on it,” Jimmie Johnson said. “It’s not like a 1.5-mile where we have the D-shaped front straightaway and you actually get away from the wall and if something went wrong again, have a terrible angle at the wall.”

That kind of geometry doesn’t work for Dale Earnhardt Jr., Johnson’s Hendrick Motorsports teammate.

“We’ve added them to Bristol (Tenn.) and Martinsville (Va.) and they’re small tracks, too,” Earnhardt said. “We go pretty fast (at Dover). It’s a hard lick at this place. You hit one wall and slide down and hit another. Those are hard licks that aren’t a lot of fun.”

Said Johnson: “With all that said, man, I would take a soft wall over a hard wall any day in any situation.”