Scott Fowler

Move the fans back and slow the cars down after another Daytona crash

Austin Dillon (3) goes airborne and hits the catch fence as he was involved in a multi-car crash on the final lap of the NASCAR Sprint Cup series auto race at Daytona International Speedway.
Austin Dillon (3) goes airborne and hits the catch fence as he was involved in a multi-car crash on the final lap of the NASCAR Sprint Cup series auto race at Daytona International Speedway. AP

Slow them down. And get the fans out of the way.

At the least, those are two things that should happen immediately at NASCAR's two fastest tracks –Daytona and Talladega. They are the most dangerous tracks on the circuit, and we saw evidence of that again early Monday morning when Austin Dillon's car flipped into the air and plowed into the catch fence behind race winner Dale Earnhardt Jr. as the race concluded.

No one was killed, thankfully. Thirteen fans were assessed for injuries, according to Daytona officials. Eight declined treatment, four were treated by track medics and one was transported to the hospital (that fan was treated and released).

It could have been worse, and it looked like it should have been worse. But today is not a day for congratulations about Daytona’s catch fence doing its job – which it certainly did for Dillon, although not so much for the fans.

Today is a day to figure out how to make racing better and safer. And the simplest way to do that is for NASCAR to lower the speeds at Daytona and Talladega with a rules package that restricts the cars’ ability to reach 200 mph.

Dillon, who walked away from the scary crash with only a bruised forearm and tailbone, would certainly agree with that. As he said early Monday following the crash about the speeds at Daytona: “It’s not really acceptable, I don’t think. I mean, we've got to figure out something. I think our speeds are too high, I really do.”

Earnhardt Jr. knows very well the dangers at Daytona. His father Dale Sr. was killed in a last-lap crash at the Daytona 500 in 2001, also in the No. 3 car. Dale Jr. said he was on the "verge of tears" as he looked back just after his victory Monday morning and saw what was unfolding behind him. Jimmie Johnson saw it too and would say afterward: "I'm shocked that Austin Dillon is even alive from what he went through."

There weren't as many fans hurt this time around as compared to Kyle Larson's crash in 2013 at another race at Daytona International Speedway, which injured 28 fans. Fourteen of those fans had to be treated off-site, compared to only one on Monday.

Daytona has made several laudable safety improvements since Larson’s similar-looking crash in 2013. But I still believe the fans are too close to the action – particularly near the start-finish line. Grandstands either need to be elevated or tickets should simply not be sold for the bottom few rows. There has to be more of a buffer.

Another issue from this particular race: It was ridiculous that it was happening at all.

Due to bad weather, the Coke Zero 400 was delayed from its scheduled start time of slightly past 8 p.m. to a start of 11:42 p.m. – by then, it should have been over.

Instead, it didn't end until 2:41 a.m. As Johnson would say later: "You can feel the weight of the day kind of on you, on your eyes."

I am not sure after watching the videos if Dillon's wreck could have been avoided anyway, but I do know that very few people are making great decisions in their lives at 2:41 a.m. I understand NASCAR is sensitive to time constraints for its fans and drivers and doesn't want to make everyone stick around an extra day if it can be helped. But in this case that should have happened.

Don't start a race shortly before midnight. Tell everyone to go home. Start the race the next morning at 11 a.m. Be done with it.

That's a smaller issue compared to the wreck, of course. The crash was "terrifying to watch," as Earnhardt Jr. said, and he spoke for everybody on that one.

And while racing will always have an element of danger – and don't misunderstand me, I know that danger is part of the appeal and cannot be legislated completely out of the sport – this crash is an incident that should teach us all something. Two things, really.

Get the fans further out of harm's way. And slow the cars down on the track.

If those two things don't happen, there are going to be a whole lot of cars driving really slow one of these days.

They will be going to a funeral.

Fowler: sfowler@charlotteobserver.com; Twitter: @scott_fowler

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