Max Papis: Do You Really Belong At Talladega Superspeedway?
The 2001 Daytona 500 held on Feb. 18 was a sad and horrible day in NASCAR.
It was a dark day in the sport that everyone around the sport felt could have been avoided.
What had been an exciting day for the fans and competitors turned into one of the blackest days in the sport's history, when the sanctioning body's John Wayne and "Man In Black," Dale Earnhardt, Sr., perished in a last-lap accident that saw his No. 3 Goodwrench Chevy impact the Turn Three wall at a critical angle.
Bill Elliott, who competed in that year's Daytona 500, wrote in his book that NASCAR had turned a blind eye to safety in the past, even when it first became available.
Elliott went on to state that until that day in 2001, NASCAR didn't embrace the SAFER (the Steel And Foam Energy Reduction) barriers or the HANS device, or Head And Neck System, prior to the events of 500.
A qualified voice of concern, Elliott had his share of hard crashes late in his career. From his 1996 accident at Talladega, when his No. 94 McDonald's Ford Thunderbird shot airborne and landed hard on its wheels in the long backstretch of the 2.66-mile facility.
The accident wasn't devastating, but Elliott's injuries were certainly painful. The end result was a broken left leg that saw the Georgian racer have screws and plates inserted to the injured leg for two years.
Since 2001, NASCAR has come a long way with the safety.
Every track has a SAFER barrier and every driver must wear a HANS device before setting out on the track.
NASCAR also makes it difficult for inexperienced drivers to race at superspeedways because of lack of experience with the unpredictable and unstable elements of restrictor plate racing.
This has been especially vital for the younger, inexperienced racers, allowing them to get their feet wet in the development, feeder series instead of the national touring ranks, where these drivers can finally harness the high speed and develop some kind of discipline on the track.
But just when everyone thought that NASCAR had come a long way in eight years, the sport showed some reason for skepticism in their changes.
Early in 2006, NASCAR did not allow Wood Brothers/JTG Racing drivers Kelly Bires and Keven Wood drive at Daytona in the Truck Series race due to their lack of experience at the superspeedways.
So the Wood Brothers hired two veterans to drive the trucks at Daytona.
NASCAR did not approve Joey Logano to race in any of the top three national series until he raced a race with restrictor plates.
The list goes on and on.
Then there are drivers with proven records with high-speed machinery, like Jacques Villeneuve, Patrick Carpentier, Jon Wes Townley, who were almost prevented from competing at Daytona in the Nationwide Series race.
Now, let's go back to the present situation at hand for the upcoming race at Talladega.
Like any other race week, the entry list for the Aaron's 499 came out. It's a document released by the sanctioning body as much as a few days before the actual race that lists down each driver and team that intends to compete in the race.
"Forty-six drivers for 43 spots!" I exclaimed to my brother.
We saw 45 legitimate drivers on the entry list, until we came across Max Papis.
Papis' restrictor plate experience consists of just two 40-lap races in the now extinct IROC Series.
Only 80 laps with 12 cars in races that occurred well over three years ago.
And NASCAR feels that this is enough experience for Papis to run at Talladega?
How can that be?
So Helio Castroneves can come right over and run at Talladega if he wants?
Don't get me wrong, I have nothing against Papis. I think he's a really good guy.
But if he couldn't even keep his No. 13 GEICO Toytoa Cup car straight at Texas, how is he going to fare at Talladega?
This is insane.
I was not an Earnhardt fan, but no matter how much you dislike someone, you would never want to see a tragic accident happen to any other driver.
There is only so much that NASCAR can do with the HANS device and the SAFER barriers.
You've got to keep up with your end of the bargain.
And to the remaining 45 drivers on the entry list, I hope that nothing bad happens.
But I would be scared to death if that No. 13 car pulled beside me on the freeway, much less at Talladega.
Yet, NASCAR seems to think this is OK.
Boy, I hope they are right for the other drivers' sake.
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