Payback less an issue than flying cars

5/6/2010 - NASCAR

TALLADEGA, Ala. -- Dale Earnhardt Jr. was more than a bit peeved two weeks ago when he saw Brad Keselowski's Sprint Cup car flying upside down after an intentional nudge from Carl Edwards.

He became more upset when some suggested that the real question wasn't how and when Edwards chose to enact what he considered payback, but that NASCAR needs to find a way to keep the cars on the ground.

Upon reflection, Earnhardt said as Tuesday's spoiler/restrictor plate test at Talladega Superspeedway came to a close, keeping the car on the ground "might be the question."

In the greater scheme of things, it is.

We can debate for eternity whether Edwards -- 156 laps down at the time -- had the right to take Keselowski out with two laps remaining at Atlanta Motor Speedway. We can debate whether the front straightaway at nearly 200 mph was the proper place for revenge of any kind.

We can debate whether Keselowski, who was in sixth place, even deserved to be booted.

But we can't debate that keeping cars on the ground should be NASCAR's main focus moving forward. Find a solution and it won't matter when or where a driver opts to self-police; the outcome won't put the other driver or even fans in danger, as those at Atlanta Motor Speedway were when Keselowski's car went airborne and landed on its roof.

"The concern is keeping the cars on the racetrack," Ryan Newman said. "That makes them safe, no doubt."

Newman has been beating this drum since October when his car landed on its roof in the final stages of the race at Talladega. He called NASCAR officials that night to discuss possible solutions and met with vice president of competition Robin Pemberton and Cup Series director John Darby later in the week.

Newman suggested testing the cars backward in the wind tunnel to get a better idea of what makes them lift at certain angles and what can be done to slow them down so that doesn't happen. NASCAR did this, and did it again last week after Keselowski's horrific crash. That is why -- moving forward -- when the spoiler replaces the wing, cars will carry a 3.5-inch fin on the left-rear deck lid and window at all tracks, not just Daytona and Talladega for which it was designed. That, according to experts, will help break up the flow of air rushing across the trunk.

Many have blamed the wing for why we've seemingly seen more cars go airborne in the past three years than the past 10. They argue that when the car goes backward the device acts like a wing on a plane and creates lift. They argue the spoiler will create enough downforce to prevent this from happening.

"I think this [spoiler] will take care of that problem," said Martin Truex Jr., echoing the thoughts of other drivers surveyed Tuesday.

Case closed?

Not really. Not even close.

We pause here for a lesson in Aerodynamics 101. Not to worry, this isn't from personal education. Newton's laws of motion were created by a much wiser Newton of no immediate relation.

This lesson comes from Kurt Romberg, the chief of aerodynamics at Hendrick Motorsports. He put things in terms as simple as an engineer can during Tuesday's test.

Bottom line: Liftoff is a condition of the cars. Whether there's a wing or a spoiler, if the car spins in just the right way at just the right angle at just the right speed -- or a perfect storm, as Romberg says -- it is going to go airborne.

"It would be extremely difficult to design a car to take into account that perfect storm," Romberg said. "There is very little in this world you can do to be 100 percent safe."

But Romberg is encouraged by tweaks NASCAR has made to prevent this. He believes the fins will help, because liftoff usually occurs before the car is completely backward, meaning the flow of air over the rear deck lid creates a low-pressure differential that creates almost a tornado effect.

"With spoilers, when you get the car going just right and get that blade into the wind, it will twist that air into a tornado and it will really lift up on the deck lid, which lifts up the rest of the car," he said.

Romberg says the spoiler is a bit more forgiving, but not enough to guarantee that cars will stay on the ground. Devices such as the fin and rooftop flaps are much more effective.

"They break up the air and keep it from going around fast," he said. "They eliminate the low pressure on top of the car. Initial liftoff is due to low pressure on the top, and then there is an additional throwing of the car by having pressure on the bottom."

From what Romberg has been told, the fins and other adjustments have increased liftoff speed from 150 mph to around 180. The higher that gets, the safer drivers will be.

"NASCAR is heading in the right direction," Romberg said.

Earnhardt gets that. He's been around the sport long enough to understand "the spoiler ain't the fix-all."

He's also been around long enough to know that the vision of Keselowski's car going through the air won't be enough to keep the next driver from taking a similar chance, even though Keselowski suggests otherwise.

Earnhardt Well, maybe for a couple of months we will think about it. When you do the kind of things Carl does afterwards you feel really bad regardless of how it works out. Maybe even if the guy got what he deserved.

-- Dale Earnhardt Jr.

"I don't see what happened at Atlanta ever happening again," said Keselowski, who looks forward to meeting with Edwards this weekend at Bristol to get a better explanation of why he was wrecked. "Everybody saw what happened, and really how lucky we are. By 'we,' I mean everybody in the garage."

That's wishful thinking. As if drivers seeking retribution are thinking at all.

It is another form of the perfect storm.

"Well, maybe for a couple of months we will think about it," Earnhardt said. "When you do the kind of things Carl does afterwards you feel really bad regardless of how it works out. Maybe even if the guy got what he deserved.

"But s--- is happening too fast for you to go, 'Uhhhh. I don't want to do this because I could create this.'"

On that most agree, although not all agree on how Edwards made his point. As stated earlier, that could be debated forever.

"You feel bad at the time" said four-time Cup champion Jeff Gordon. "But you make a conscious decision based on your anger and what's happening leading up to that. And you make that choice. It might be something you harbored for months. It might be something you want to take care of right away.

"You can't control the results."

So the greater question, as Earnhardt reluctantly came to agree, is how to keep the cars on the ground.

"It scared the s--- out of me to see that happen," Earnhardt said. "It's just the nature of the game. Always has been. Racing's dangerous."

It just doesn't have to be that dangerous.

David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at dnewtonespn@aol.com.