The warning was issued by Carl Edwards moments after he emerged from the infield care center at Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway late on Sunday afternoon. "We'll do this until somebody gets killed, and then [NASCAR] will change," Edwards said. The normally ebullient driver was visibly shaken, and for good reason: He had just walked away from a frightening accident that left seven spectators injured and narrowly missed being one of the worst tragedies in NASCAR history.
This much appears all but certain: If NASCAR doesn't change how its races are conducted at the sport's most treacherous track, a driver or a fan—or perhaps even dozens of fans—will get killed at the 2.66-mile tri-oval.
Sunday's race had already seen two massive wrecks involving a total of 24 cars before the Talladega time bomb nearly exploded on the last lap of the Aaron's 499. That's when Edwards, who was in the lead, dived low along the frontstretch to block a hard-charging Brad Keselowski. Unwilling to incur the kind of penalty that last fall cost Regan Smith a win at Talladega, Keselowski held his ground rather than drive below the double-yellow out-of-bounds line that runs along the inside of the track. He bumped the left rear of Edwards's number 99 Ford. Edwards spun and was hit by Ryan Newman's car, sending Edwards's 3,400-pound vehicle airborne at 190 mph.
He flew into the catch fence, but the impact sent parts of his car spraying like shrapnel into the first rows of the grandstands. Two fans had to be taken to hospitals in Birmingham, but, thankfully, the worst injury was a suspected broken jaw. (Unaware of the injuries in the stands, Edwards was able to crawl out of his mutilated wreck and, with his helmet still on, jog 200 feet to cross the finish line √† la Ricky Bobby in Talladega Nights.)
May 3, 2009
This was racing theater at its most dramatic, but even NASCAR officials admitted afterward, it was only by good fortune that there were no fatalities. "We'll investigate the accident and see what we can do better," said Jim Hunter, NASCAR's vice president of communications. "The good news is that the fence did what it was supposed to do."
The accident brought back memories of 1987, when Bobby Allison took flight at Talladega from nearly the same spot that Edwards did. Allison didn't land in the grandstands, but his tumbling car shredded 150 feet of fence along the frontstraight, injuring several spectators. Allison escaped injury, but his horrific accident prompted NASCAR to put restrictor plates on the carburetors at Talladega and Daytona to limit top speeds. That move worked, holding cars to under 200 mph, but it also produced vast packs of cars running dangerously close together, with no margin for error. The plates are a necessary evil—without them, speeds would top 240 mph—but it's time, in the wake of Edwards's wreck, for NASCAR to amend its rules and allow passing below the yellow line on the final lap.
"I'm not sure I did the right thing," said Keselowski, a 25-year-old full-time Nationwide Series driver making just his fifth Cup start. "But if the yellow line wasn't there, I would have gone underneath [Edwards]."
And had Keselowski done that, there most likely wouldn't have been a wreck. Next time there could be funerals following Talladega, which is why NASCAR needs to act before the Cup series returns on Nov. 1 to its most perilous racetrack.
Now on SI.com
Cup analysis from Lars Anderson and Mark Beech's Racing Fan on SI.com/bonus
Joe Gibbs Racing's Joey Logano (below), who has been among the biggest disappointments of 2009, had his finest performance of the season on Sunday. The 18-year-old rookie expertly avoided the two big wrecks that involved at least 10 cars each and ran with the leaders all afternoon. He finished a career-best ninth.... For the first time since March 13, 2005, Kurt Busch is atop the point standings. Though his car was dinged up in Sunday's wreck on Lap 7, he climbed back to finish sixth. Busch's average finish of 9.4 this season is tops in the series. A year after finishing 18th in the standings, he continues to be the season's biggest surprise.