NASCAR Sprint Cup Series driver Denny Hamlin knows all too well that NASCAR still remains a sport where severe injury or worse is a possibility every time a driver takes the track. It was no more evident for the Joe Gibbs Racing driver than on the final lap of March's NASCAR race at Auto Club Speedway.
Battling for the lead on the final lap with new rival Joey Logano, Hamlin lost control and piled into a solid concrete wall. The crunching hit left Hamlin's car destroyed. He's missed several races with a compression fracture suffered during the going-for-broke crash.
Hamlin, just as Brad Keselowski, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Michael Annett and others have learned in recent seasons, saw firsthand that auto racing still isn't a safe endeavor even in the era of NASCAR's expansive safety program. And when Hamlin returns, he'll be facing tracks still full of danger at every turn of every track.
Ten of those tracks, however, stand out as being particularly dangerous.
One of NASCAR's smallest tracks, it's hard to think a short track could produce hair-raising incidents. But Bristol is no slouch when it comes to high speeds in tight places.
That combination has led to numerous problems for drivers. Whether it's a flat tire or contact, walls on both sides of the track are never far away. That's what Kyle Petty found out when a crashing car sent his car into the wall in 2003 for a driver's side hit. He missed the next race with a rib injury.
Bristol has added Steel and Foam Energy Reducing (SAFER) Barriers to its walls since, but that doesn't protect drivers from all vicious on-track hits. Case in point: Joey Gase and Brad Sweet's practice accident in March. Neither driver was injured, but it showed perfectly how the tight confines and limited sight lines of the track can produce dangerous results.
Denny Hamlin drove the danger of Auto Club Speedway home in March, but the two-mile West Coast speedway has been a track full of peril for many years. The long straightaways produce speeds well over 200 mph, and the sweeping corners can sometimes play havoc on tires.
Making contact with the outside wall is rarely a light hit, especially when a tire goes down while racing the low line. The speed also creates dangerous conditions for contact, as Dale Earnhardt Jr. found when miscommunication tangled his car with Kevin Harvick's in 2002. In 2007, a race accident separated the shoulder of driver Ricky Rudd.
Brad Keselowski and David Reutimann have also been involved in some of ACS' hardest hits. It's no place to mess around.
Reshaped in the late 1990s, Atlanta Motor Speedway has been treacherous in both the old oval version and the current D-shaped version. In both forms, it was plenty fast.
Before the track's realignment, it featured heavy crashes like Steve Grissom's flipping and fiery incident in 1997. Grissom ultimately walked away with little more than a destroyed race car and a slight ankle injury. The realignment made the track faster in 1998, and for a time, it held the fastest non-restrictor plate qualifying speed in NASCAR.
The speed also produced nasty incidents, like the one that broke Steve Park's leg in its opening season.
A track with three distinct corners and the sport's longest straightaway, Pocono Raceway presents problems for even the best handling cars. It's also a track from NASCAR's days of old that went many years without real upgrade.
It's the place that ended Bobby Allison's career, and the place where his son Davey experienced a nasty tumble. Steve Park slid through the infield grass before catching a guardrail and violently flipping along the Long Pond Straightaway. Jeff Gordon lost brakes entering turn one at nearly 200 miles per hour and walloped the outside wall with his car's driver's side. Elliott Sadler caught an oddly shaped wall after getting spun out and hit hard enough to entirely dislodge his engine.
In recent years, Pocono has taken action to upgrade walls and fences at its track to keep cars out of the trees like Kasey Kahne's car in 2010, from flipping in the grass or finding a dangerous section of wall. But as with any track with high speeds and sharp corners, danger is always just a moment away.
Built for the 1997 season to be a sister track to Charlotte Motor Speedway, Texas Motor Speedway proved to be plenty fast and dangerous during its first few seasons. The inaugural race and the second race at the track produced huge multi-car wrecks within the race's first two laps. Pavement issues forced the track to repaved nearly immediately.
Still a fast track in 1999, Jeff Gordon blew a tire exiting Turn 4 and broadsided the wall in a hit that left him visibly shaken. The track would also put a pause on Ricky Craven's Cup Series career when he hit the outside wall and suffered a severe concussion.
The most jaw-dropping crash at Texas, however, was Michael McDowell's violent, flipping qualifying crash in 2008. Amazingly, he walked away.
Indianapolis Motor Speedway, perhaps the most well-known speedway in the world, is a track that has proved perilous for over a century to drivers in open-wheel machines. The danger has remained even after NASCAR's full-bodied machines rumbled to the Brickyard in 1994.
IMS' two long straightaways lead directly to 90-degree corners with little more than one groove. Just seconds later, cars that have gained speed again face another 90-degree left that keeps the load high on right side tires. It's a recipe for failure without the right setup.
IMS demands perfection in every corner, and just slight imbalances can upset a car tuned to go quickly down the straightaway. Jimmy Spencer, Jeremy Mayfield, Kyle Petty and Ryan Newman are just a few of the NASCAR drivers to leave heavy crashes at IMS either injured or very sore.
Michigan International Speedway, with long straightaways and wide corners, has long been a haven for drivers. It provides multiple grooves and several passing options while requiring optimum performance from both engine and chassis. Michigan has also shown a dangerous streak.
The track single-handily derailed Ernie Irvan's promising career by first nearly taking his life in a 1995 practice crash, and then forcing him into retirement after yet another practice crash in 1999. The track also claimed the life of Clifford Allison during another practice crash in August 1992.
More recently, Michigan's mean streak struck when Mark Martin got loose while battling for the lead, spun and impacted the pit wall. He hit at such an angle that the wall actually impaled his car just behind the driver's seat.
One of NASCAR's longest used high-speed tracks, Charlotte Motor Speedway's narrow corners and fast straights have caught many drivers in precarious situations.
Tony Stewart crashed twice in two days at the track in 2006, injuring his shoulder. The late Davey Allison won the 1992 Winston All-Star race at the 1.5-mile speedway but crashed so hard crossing the finish line that instead of going to Victory Lane, he went to the hospital. Darrell Waltrip was injured in the same race three years later after crashing with Dale Earnhardt.
The track has been more harrowing for drivers in lower series in more recent times, including claiming the life of ARCA driver Blaise Alexander in 2001.
NASCAR's biggest track is often one of its most dangerous. High speeds combined with intensely close racing has sold millions of tickets as fans watch drivers duel right on the edge of danger. Many, many times they've crossed it.
Look no further than the 25-car pileup in 2012 caused by Tony Stewart. Stewart ended up flipping violently over crashing and flaming cars. That incident, combined with a testing crash at Kansas Speedway just prior, ultimately knocked Dale Earnhardt Jr. from four races due to a concussion.
The track was no friend to his late father at times, either. Dale Earnhardt Sr. broke his sternum, shoulder blade and more there in 1996 when his car hit the wall head-on and then was rammed by cars as it flipped upside down. The same crash broke Bill Elliott's leg.
The track has also produced violent, flipping crashes for countless drivers like Carl Edwards, Ryan Newman, Mark Martin, Rusty Wallace and Elliott Sadler. Major melees at Talladega are the norm, not the unexpected.
The most famous track in all of NASCAR has also been one that has caused some of its most incredible heartbreak.
The 2.5-mile track claimed the life of Dale Earnhardt on the final lap of 2001's Daytona 500. His friend Neil Bonnett was killed there during a practice accident in 1994, along with Rodney Orr. The track's high banking and long straightaways produced once unimaginable speed for stock cars, and today has created racing where tight packs are the norm.
Violent flips, grinding wall impacts and other incidents make Daytona—the foundation of NASCAR—the sport's most dangerous track.