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Safety is suddenly a big issue again in the NASCAR garage, with the Glen getting praise and Pocono getting questions

  Carl Edwards: stock car racing's new road course hero? He's on the pole for Sunday's race at the Glen (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   By Mike Mulhern

   The good news is Elliott Sadler is alive and kicking and running Sunday here.
   The bad news is that his crash at Pocono last Sunday was the hardest hit ever recorded since NASCAR started using those black-box G-force recorders.
   The good news is that the HANS device – that head-and-shoulders restrain system mandated by NASCAR following Dale Earnhardt's death – saved Elliott Sadler's life.
   The bad news is that Jeff Burton says he started warning NASCAR and Pocono officials about the specific dangers at that track five years ago, only to be ignored. Or more than ignored, Burton indicated here – basically told to shut up and stop complaining.
   The good news is Elliott Sadler is still alive....
   Carl Edwards won the pole Saturday for Sunday's 220-mile Sprint Cup sprint at Watkins Glen International, adding to the Jack Roush Ford teams comeback this summer. And teammate Greg Biffle, who ended Ford's dry spell with a win last weekend at Pocono, qualified seventh.
   Edwards was such a surprise in Saturday runs that "some people thought I missed the bus stop (the backstretch safety chicane)... which shows you they don't quite have faith in my road racing skills just yet. I hope they hold up."
   Edwards then gave a nod to Biffle and crew chief Greg Erwin: "They helped us so much, and that car was much better than what we came up here with.
   "Their set-up is spectacular."
   Tony Stewart and Jeff Gordon are considered the tour's top road racers, and Stewart has a particularly impressive string of runs here.
   And Stewart, after a slow start to the season, has come on strong the last few races.
   Still Biffle and Edwards now have some skin in this game. And maybe Kyle Busch too, who swept NASCAR's road races in 2008 and who has been very fast here, though conceding he and his teammates are in something of a slump this summer. And Robby Gordon, who nearly won Sonoma, has been arming for this one. Where Sonoma winner Jimmie Johnson and Sonoma hard-luck finisher Marcos Ambrose may fit into the picture isn't yet clear.

   However safety issues, in the wake of Sadler's savage crash seven days ago, and in the wake of bad crashes here last summer, are a top item in the NASCAR garage.
   Last August here Sam Hornish and Gordon collided, in a mean melee in turn seven, near the 'boot' part of the long road course. Kasey Kahne and Hornish had tangled, Hornish sliding off the track into a tire wall and then bouncing back onto the track, when he was slammed hard by Gordon. Other drivers were also involved. Here's the video:  http://bit.ly/d1CGpq
   So track boss Michael Printup has redesigned that part of the course to make it safer.  And drivers say they are pleased with the improvements.

   Elliott Sadler: alive and kicking and running here at the Glen, one week after one of NASCAR's hardest hits (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR) 

   However Burton's revealing here that he has pushed for safety improvements at Pocono for several years, only to be rebuffed, is damning.
   Drivers, Burton says, need to be more watchful at tour tracks, to try to catch and report safety issues.
   But Burton said he has long  been talking about needed safety improvements Pocono needed to make:
   "I told several people four or five years ago that race track had to be fixed. 
    "I had a conversation with the race track...and every time they had the conversation it was 'This is the first time anybody has ever brought it to us.'
    "I heard that on many occasions.
    "The new group there (Brandon Igdalsky, grandson of the owners, is the new track boss) is very committed to changing the race track and to making it better to try to make it safer. 
    "My calls to improving the back straightaway at Pocono fell on deaf ears; it's just that simple. 
    "The race track has to change it. And all I could do is bring it to their attention. 
     "I brought it to their attention on numerous occasions and nothing happened. 
    "So I had some people that didn't like me talking about it. I talked about it to the media one time years ago, and some people didn't like that. 
     "Nothing fell through the crack, as far as I was concerned -- other than the race track delaying fixing it. 

    Jeff Burton: Speaking out on safety, and says his words of warning about Pocono over the past five years have gone unheeded by NASCAR and that track (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

    "The race track (now) is committed to fixing it," Burton went on. "And they were committed to fixing it prior to this incident. 
    "We shouldn't learn the same lesson over and over and over. 
     "We saw a fatality at California Speedway years ago – (Indy-car driver) Greg Moore hit the inside wall of a wall opening. 
     "We didn't see a fatality this past week.  We saw a severe impact on the inside wall opening, how many years later. 
      "That is something that we, as the drivers, the race tracks, we all collectively need to always been looking to be better. 
     "It's what I talk about all the time when I talk about safety: If we think we're 'good enough,' we're going to fall back to where we were."
     While NASCAR now apparently has a policy of secretly fining drivers for saying things Daytona doesn't like or considers critical of the sport, Burton is unlikely to be so penalized.
     "NASCAR has become the leader in the industry when it comes to safety, and it's because they've been very, very, very proactive in order to make it better," Burton went on. "They are looking for ways to make it better. 
     "(But) we have to have everybody --  We have to have the track operator, we have to have the car owners, we have to have everybody involved, and everybody willing. 
     "In the (Pocono) track's defense, they have spent an exorbitant amount of money putting up SAFER barriers with no return on that investment. 
     "There's no return on that investment. 
     "When they put up grandstands, concession stands, improve restrooms, there's a return on that investment. 
     "When you put up soft walls, there is no return on investment.
      "I'm not sitting here saying Pocono, or any race track for that matter, is not doing anything, because that's not fair.  In Pocono's case they had not done enough...and it's clear to the new management that they had not done enough – And they said prior to the race that they were going to fix it. 
    "It was just one race too long. 
     "We shouldn't learn lessons over and over and over.
     "But we've got to have the drivers willing to participate -- we should be willing to go look at race tracks and pay attention to them. 
     "There was an opening on the back straightaway at Charlotte Motor Speedway that I had never seen before, until a year and a half ago. Humpy Wheeler (general manager) was still there, and he promised me that it was going to get fixed. And they made improvements to it. 
    "I'd raced there for 17 years and never noticed it.  I need to do better than that; I need to be looking a little harder than that. 
    "We have to have everybody willing to go do their part."


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    Carl Edwards' crew, headed by Bob Osborne, may have the car to beat at Watkins Glen...with some good help from teammates Greg Biffle and Greg Erwin (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


This is Jeff Burton playing

This is Jeff Burton playing revisionist history and patting himself on the back even though he was wrong. The backstretch at Pocono was not a problem area. The Sadler wreck had nothing to do with lack of a paved runoff area because there is no serious evidence that paved runoff areas do any real good - remember how they were supposed to help keep cars on the ground because grass infields were bouncing them off the ground and they were flipping as a result? As shown here in Matt Kenseth's 2009 flip at Talladega, these runoff ares don't work - a paved runoff didn't help Steve Grissom at Atlanta many years ago, either.

And what is he talking about with regard to wall openings? Greg Moore didn't crash into a wall opening, he flipped into the inside wall because he was going 230 MPH, 40-plus MPH beyond any justification for that class of racecar.

And for all the changes Watkins Glen has made, the reality is they haven't changed a thing - being a road course it bottlenecks, notably here and here - heck, there isn't an area where they can't bottleneck. And I can't think of a road course - not even Sears Point - where there's no risk of bottlenecking. That area off Seven that they changed after the Hornish melee, they put down asphalt that the drivers are passing on - not a bad thing normally but a recipe for potential disaster given how Watkins Glen bottlenecks.

The idea that having a SAFER would have somehow lessened the severity of Sadler's crash is mind-boggling, and it isn't plausible that a paved runoff area would do any good since they generally haven't on other ovals. Sadler's problem was more a speed problem than anything - they hit 200 in trap speeds virtually any medium to big oval they race on.

And Jeff, what are they supposed to do on the backstretch at Pocono, put up a catchfence when there's no need for one? Because Kahne tried to ram it off the racetrack, lost it, and took out a bunch of cars where his back bumper scraped the wall?

This is safety overkill.

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