Last Saturday, we were reminded once again that racing is a dangerous sport. When Kyle Larson careened into the catch fence on the final lap of the NASCAR Nationwide race, a number of spectators were injured by flying parts, including a wheel.
Driver safety has definitely improved, as evidenced by Larson exiting what was left of his race car under his own power. However, the sport still has work left undone in the area of spectator safety. Perhaps the current design of catch fences needs to be re-thought. Carl Edwards' crash at Talladega a couple of years ago was a warning, as was the death of Dan Wheldon at Las Vegas at the end of the 2011 IndyCar season. Wheldon's death was caused in part by catch fence design. NASCAR, which moved glacially on safety items until the death of Dale Earnhardt Sr., has installed SAFER barriers, mandated the HANS device, and made quantum leaps in car design to maximize driver safety. It's time they did the same for the fans.
The second big story out of Daytona was Danica Patrick. Despite pundits who said she couldn't last 30 laps in the big race, she led laps under green and hung out in the top five for most of the race. And though she got shuffled back from third to eighth on the final lap of the 500, I've seen some of NASCAR's greats suffer similar or worse results at the end of the race. Yes, I know a lot of people are sick of the hype surrounding her, but to be the first woman to take pole at a NASCAR race, let alone the Daytona 500, is a big deal. And she proved she could race with the best of them last Sunday.
The third big deal was the winner of the race. Jimmie Johnson has been picked by many members of the motorsports press to score his sixth championship this year, and I think that's a definite possibility. Yes, we're only one race into the season, but the Hendrick teams have shown that they have a handle on the new car design that perhaps other teams don't. At least not yet. Jeff Gordon also ran strong until getting shuffled back into the pack while babying a fragile engine.
The Joe Gibbs Racing Toyotas also looked very strong, particularly new team member Matt Kenseth. Unfortunately, the engine woes that plagued Gibbs last season do not appear to have been solved, as both Kenseth and Kyle Busch retired early, within the space of two laps. Denny Hamlin soldiered on for a decent finish, but I'm sure he was hearing strange noises from under the hood for the last 50 laps or so.
The first Phoenix race of 2013 is Sunday, and it's one of Jimmie Johnson's best tracks. He leads active drivers there with four wins. If he can put up back-to-back wins to start the season, it's going to be pretty demoralizing for the other 42 drivers in the field. Of course, the new car design means that everybody is starting with a clean sheet of paper this weekend. Last year's notebooks aren't going to be much help.
In local racing news, I spoke with Matt Ramthun, who starts a new full-time job at Reno-Tahoe-Fernley Speedway on Monday. I'm going to try to get out to the track in the next week or so to check out the progress on all the planned improvements, so I can give a first-hand account of what to expect for the upcoming season. Stay tuned.