Time to take the danger zone out of Pocono

Chris Symeon, Motorsports Editor

The Inside Line Long Pond, PA (Sports Network) - Track officials at Pocono Raceway might have breathed a sigh of relief after Elliott Sadler walked away from one of the most vicious accidents in NASCAR history, but it's now evident that safety improvements must be made at the track to avoid a potentially fatal incident.

With 36 laps remaining in Sunday's 500-mile race at Pocono, Jimmie Johnson tapped Kurt Busch from behind. Busch hit the outside wall, slid down the track and then spun on the wet, grassy area along the backstretch before plowing into the inside guardrail. It had rained at Pocono prior to the start of the race.

Sadler, who won the inaugural Truck Series race at Pocono on Saturday, got caught up in the accident when he was hit from behind, as he was slowing down to avoid hitting Busch. Sadler slammed head-on into the guardrail after sliding on the grass at a high speed.

The impact was so severe that it stripped the engine and driveshaft from Sadler's car onto the grass and track surface. Sadler gingerly climbed out of his car and then laid down next to it, as track and medical officials quickly attended to him. Both Busch and Sadler were later released from the track's infield care center.

"Somebody just ran into the back of me and turned me inside through the wet grass into the guardrail, so I was along for the ride," Sadler said. "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."

Thank NASCAR for Sadler leaving the accident unscathed.

Since Dale Earnhardt's fatal crash in the 2001 Daytona 500, NASCAR continuously has improved the safety of the sport. The current car (car of tomorrow), the Head and Neck Support (HANS) device and the Steel and Foam Energy Reduction (SAFER) barrier, also known as the "soft wall," have all reduced the potential for serious injuries during a crash.

What has been an issue for Pocono is that the 2.5-mile triangular track does not have SAFER barriers installed along the inside area of the backstretch, where many horrifying accidents have occurred in the past.

When the Sprint Cup Series competed at Pocono in June, a nine-car pileup occurred on the final lap when A.J. Allmendinger shoved his teammate, Kasey Kahne, down the track and into the grass. Kahne's car got airborne after he shot up the track and then slammed hard into the wall.

In July 2002, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Steve Park crashed spectacularly on the backstretch. Park's car did several barrel rolls on the grass before smashing into the guardrail. NASCAR stopped the race for more than one hour, as track officials repaired the barrier.

Following Kahne's crash at Pocono, some drivers, particularly Greg Biffle, have criticized the track for its lack of efforts to improve safety.

Biffle ended a 46-race winless streak and gave Ford its first victory of the season at Pocono.

"It's dangerous to have grass next to where you're running 200 miles an hour; that's all there is to it," Biffle said during his post-race news conference. "Talladega and Daytona had that same issue, and they added pavement, like a skid pad, whatever you want to call it, so when the car gets out of control, gets going that direction, you still have some control.

"Once you hit the grass, especially with it wet or dry, it's going to make it a little different. If you hit the grass wet, you're along for the ride. It feels like you pick up speed actually when you get into the wet grass."

Biffle was very outspoken against Pocono during a Sports Illustrated interview last month. He told the magazine, "They're going to kill somebody there."

In response to recent criticisms, Pocono track president Brandon Igdalsky, who is the grandson of track owners Joseph and Rose Mattioli, confirmed the facility will undergo modifications to improve safety, including the installation of SAFER barriers where needed, in time for the series' next race there, which is expected to be in June 2011. NASCAR anticipates releasing its schedule for next year in the coming days.

Pocono immediately planned on making changes to the track following Kahne's incident two months ago. However, Igdalsky noted that it was not possible to complete all modifications in time for Pocono's second date this season. "Talking with the guys at the racetrack this [past weekend], they obviously have a great plan as to fixing the walls and upgrading the catch fences and all those things," current Sprint Cup points leader Kevin Harvick said. "With seven weeks in between the races, it was hard to put that plan into place in between these two races. It's a huge undertaking for the racetrack to spend the amount of money that they're going to spend with the upgrades they're going to have, and I'm glad to see that they have a plan to do that."

Let's hope Pocono indeed improves their safety initiatives, so we don't have an unforeseeable tragedy.

Comments? Criticism? Applause? Contact Chris Symeon at csymeon@sportsnetwork.com.

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