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NASCAR Crashes: The Biggest 25 Wrecks in History

Christopher LeoneSenior Analyst IJanuary 20, 2017

NASCAR Crashes: The Biggest 25 Wrecks in History

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    Todd Warshaw/Getty Images

    So after plenty of deliberation and an altogether too long process of putting this together, I present to you the 25 biggest crashes in the history of NASCAR.

    Keep in mind this list is one person's opinion, and I've probably missed plenty of crashes—especially from the 1970s and 1980s, before I was born and before NASCAR had really exploded in popularity. Feel free to correct me where I'm missing something.

    "Biggest crash" means a lot of things to a lot of different people. Do we go strictly by car count? Carnage for the car and driver who got it worst? Effect on the way drivers raced after it happened? This list will attempt to take all three into account.

    One caveat, though—out of respect for those who have lost their lives behind the wheel, there are no fatal accidents on the following list. It's not respectful to the lives of the deceased. (So, no, the Dale Earnhardt accident is not on here. Seriously, don't suggest that I add it. I don't think fatal crashes are tasteful or appropriate for something like this.)

    So without further ado, let's get to it, going chronologically from the earliest to the most recent:

1960 Daytona, 37 Cars

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    Back in the olden days, superspeedway races took a lot more cars than they do today. The typical NASCAR field is now 43 cars, but this race featured 68. In this video, we see 37 drivers end their days with wrecked machinery—including six of them winding up on their roof.

    You want an epic intro to a crash list? I think you've found it, my friend. Let's carry on, shall we?

1980 Pocono, Richard Petty

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    King Richard was never quite the same after this wreck. He only won eight of his 200 career races—as many as his son, Kyle, had in his entire career—after breaking his neck in Pocono's treacherous tunnel turn.

    Like Muhammad Ali against Larry Holmes, this race ushered in the sad beginning of the end for the King. But there's more to come, from the King AND the tunnel turn.

1984 Daytona, Ricky Rudd

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    Bud Moore's Ford was no match for the inside wall of Daytona in the 1984 Busch Clash, but Ricky Rudd sure was. Not even a concussion and eyes swollen shut could keep him from racing in the Daytona 500 the next week. He taped them shut in order to race, such was his commitment to his team and the sport.

    Not only was this a massive accident, it ushered in a new era for NASCAR, which would now examine all drivers for injuries before clearing them to race the next week. It seems rudimentary now, but...

1987 Talladega, Bobby Allison

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    The fact that Bobby Allison ever raced again after tearing up the Talladega catchfence was a miracle. Even more impressive was the fact that he won the very next superspeedway race to take place, the 1988 Daytona 500, as his son Davey finished second.

    That Daytona 500 marked the first restrictor plate race in NASCAR history, a direct result of the Allison wreck. After years of unsettlingly high speeds, including record-setting laps of over 212 miles per hour, it took this wreck to finally convince NASCAR to step in.

1988 Daytona, Richard Petty

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    But even restrictor plates couldn't stop the carnage on the superspeedways. While the Allisons were busy finishing 1-2, Richard Petty was barrel rolling down the frontstretch. The g-forces experienced in so many twists temporarily blinded Petty, but he wouldn't miss a race.

    Petty would rebound with a third place finish at Richmond the very next week but never again crack the top five.

1990 Bristol, Michael Waltrip (Busch)

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    Remember the difficult 2007 that Michael Waltrip had, where he failed to qualify for about two-thirds of the Sprint Cup schedule? He and NAPA took it in stride, releasing a line of self-deprecating commercials featuring one of the sport's biggest funnymen. If you've ever seen the one where a fan asks Waltrip to autograph his "Bristol car," well, this is what it refers to.

    Believe it or not, this same type of freak accident happens at Bristol again in the future. Just you wait.

1991 Daytona, Darrell Waltrip

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    As in a lot of cases, this wreck wasn't the end of a top driver's career but certainly the beginning of the end. Darrell Waltrip's first year as an owner-driver started out solidly, with two victories and the third position in points heading into the Pepsi 400. But after this wreck, Waltrip didn't win again until 1992 and dropped to eighth in points.

    Waltrip would only win three more races in his career, none on a superspeedway, before a slow, sad fade to mediocrity that led to the collapse of his race team but a long and well-known broadcasting career.

1993 Talladega, Rusty Wallace

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    This wreck begins a lengthy stretch of bad Talladega wrecks on this list.

    Rusty Wallace had already taken flight this year at Daytona in the season-opening 500, but this wreck at Talladega was wholly unnecessary. Spun within sight of the finish like by Dale Earnhardt, it was just another example of polarizing driving by the Man in Black. Love him or hate him, you knew what you were getting at the finish with the Intimidator in your rear view mirror.

    As for Rusty, he'd be fine—the Penske Racing driver would win 10 races that year and only lose the title to Earnhardt by 80 points. In this race, he finished sixth and was listed as "running." Maybe "flying" would have been more accurate.

1993 Talladega, Jimmy Horton

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    Jimmy Horton's car suffered the worst damage in this accident, leaving the track entirely, but Stanley Smith may have come out of this accident the worst. While Horton would race again at the highest level, Smith suffered permanent eye damage that impaired the vision in his left eye, limiting the rest of his career.

1994 Talladega, Mark Martin

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    Just watch the on-board camera at the end of this clip. There are no words.

1996 Talladega, Ricky Craven

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    If any a driver exemplified untapped potential in NASCAR in the 1990s, it was Ricky Craven. The hard-luck Maine native had plenty of opportunities to shine, landing a job at Hendrick Motorsports for a time but had his career sabotaged by injuries and hard hits. This Talladega wreck didn't give him the concussion that would derail his time with HMS, but it certainly added to the track's portfolio of carnage.

1996 Talladega, Dale Earnhardt

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    You can only be on the right end of a bad accident so many times before luck comes back to bite you. This was luck coming back to bite Earnhardt. He'd suffer a broken shoulder in the accident, as he reveals in the interview. He wouldn't win again until the 1998 Daytona 500.

1998 Atlanta, Steve Park

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    Park was Dale Earnhardt's first protege to make it to the Winston Cup Series, but this wreck would forever alter the trajectory of his career. The tire failure at Atlanta knocked him out of a good amount of races with injuries and led a lot of people to wonder what could have been.

    Unfortunately for Park, he'll show up again later on this list, in one of the biggest freak accidents in the sport's history.

1999 Bristol, Terry Labonte

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    Terry Labonte and Dale Earnhardt had a history at Bristol already. A few years prior, Earnhardt actually wrecked the Iceman after he had already taken the checkered flag, leading the No. 5 team to celebrate with a wrecked car in victory lane. This time around, Earnhardt didn't waste so much time "rattling his cage," driving away to victory.

    It was one of the few times Earnhardt was ever booed.

2000 Daytona, Geoff Bodine (Truck)

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    I remember watching this happen. I was nine-years-old, and I thought I had just watched a man die. There are no words for that feeling. How can I—or any of us, for that matter—adequately describe what goes through a person's mind and body when they witness what is certain to be instant death?

    I spent the next year always looking over my shoulder, fearing death at every corner, far too aware of my own mortality for a child as young as I was.

    It didn't matter that Geoff Bodine survived the accident and came back to the sport in May at that point. Something had been shattered in me, and I'm sure I wasn't the only one.

2001 Darlington, Steve Park (Busch)

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    Park, like many Winston Cup drivers do to this day, once moonlighted in the Busch Series on weekends where both series raced at the same track. But this freak accident nearly brought an end to his entire career.

    Larry Foyt T-boned Park at well over 100 miles per hour while trying to catch up to the field after pitting under caution. The accident left Park with brain and rib injuries, and he'd never win another Cup or Busch race after recovering.

2002 Bristol, Mike Harmon (Busch)

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    Mike Harmon did his best Michael Waltrip impersonation at Bristol in 2002, crashing into the same gate as Waltrip did. But Harmon did Waltrip one better, absorbing a hit from Johnny Sauter that came dangerously close to flattening him. It gave Harmon a little bit of overnight popularity, but to this day, he still hasn't really broken into the big time.

2002 Talladega, Johnny Sauter (Busch)

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    Percentage-wise, this is the largest wreck in the history of NASCAR. Thirty-plus cars were involved, with Johnny Sauter getting the worst of it. Darrell Waltrip isn't discussing the wreck when he utters "ruh-roh" in the commentary, but he says it just as the roof of Sauter's Chevrolet flashes at the camera.

    Three cars finished on the lead lap in this race, soldiering through the final 100-plus laps almost completely alone.

2003 Talladega, Elliott Sadler

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    Sadler and Talladega weren't friends during the peak of his Winston and NEXTEL Cup career, as the track seemed to enjoy sending the M&M's car airborne. This was the first occurrence; it would happen again in 2004. As Jimmy Spencer explains in the clip, it's not the flying through the air that hurts in this accident. It's not even the first landing. It's sliding up the track and rolling a few times, bouncing hard against the banked track surface, even at a reduced speed.

    Sadler will show up again at the end of this list.

2008 Las Vegas, Jeff Gordon

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    Gordon had another wreck worthy of consideration at Pocono in 2006, but this accident led to the implementation of safer barriers on the inside wall of the Las Vegas track.

    The four-time champion was coming off a six-win, 30 top-10 season in 2007. He's only won once in the three seasons since this wreck. Perhaps another "beginning of the end" type wreck? We'll see.

2008 Texas, Michael McDowell

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    This was the wreck that "proved" NASCAR's Car of Tomorrow to the public. Michael McDowell went through one of the worst-looking crashes anybody had ever seen, hitting the wall at full speed and walking out of the car with a couple of bruises.

    While the COT has led to complaints about the quality of racing, as well as its ever-evolving and occasionally ugly aesthetics, nobody will ever suggest that it's not one of the safest cars in motorsports.

2009 Talladega, Carl Edwards

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    I don't think I have to tell anybody about this one.

2010 Atlanta, Brad Keselowski

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    Payback sucks, doesn't it, Brad?

2010 Pocono, Kasey Kahne

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    2010 was a terrible year for Richard Petty Motorsports, from financial issues to deteriorating on-track performance, but Pocono may have been the lowest of the low points. A.J. Allmendinger sent the team's lead driver, Kasey Kahne, on a wild ride that nearly led him outside of the track—which would have sent him into the trees that line the Pocono backstretch.

    But that was only one of the hard hits that a Petty car took at the track this year. Without further ado:

2010 Pocono, Elliott Sadler

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    G-force for g-force, this is the most violent accident in NASCAR history.

    The worst part is, there's no definitive record of it—just a shot that may catch the corner of the viewer's eye as an infield camera follows a spinning Kurt Busch. Busch took a hard hit, too, but he didn't set any records with it.

    This crash illustrates how far we've come. Like the McDowell crash, it showed just how safe NASCAR vehicles have become, even hitting a less-than-padded barrier at top speed. In another era, an era not so long ago, Sadler would be dead. Instead, he walked away with a headache.

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    There you have it folks, the top 25 crashes in NASCAR history. Some tore up cars. Some brought promising drivers to a standstill or ushered in the final acts of storied careers. Some led to wholesale changes in the sport. All were big for their own reasons.

    So tell me, folks. What'd I miss? (Keep it clean. Nothing fatal.)

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