JJ: Changing track can control racing

Updated: April 28, 2009, 7:26 PM ET
By David Newton | ESPN.com

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Three-time defending Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson says there is only one solution to fixing the problem that led to Sunday's horrific last-lap crash at Talladega Superspeedway.

"I don't know how we fix it unless we take a bunch of tractors out there and knock down the walls, knock down the banking, and make the track where you have to let off [the gas]," Johnson said during a Tuesday conference call. "I don't think there is a rule that NASCAR can come up with.

[+] EnlargeCarl Edwards
AP Photo/Rainier EhrhardtCarl Edwards' car goes airborne after bouncing off the hood of Ryan Newman's No. 39 at the finish Sunday at Talladega.

"As long as we're running [restrictor] plates we're going to have this issue. Not to this degree. This was a rare issue, but you're going to have these big pileups."

Dale Earnhardt Jr., Johnson's teammate at Hendrick Motorsports, agreed that speeds need to be reduced to avoid wrecks such as the one that sent Carl Edwards' car into the catch fence and left seven spectators injured.

But Earnhardt doesn't believe this should come at the cost of reconfiguring the track for economic and philosophical reasons. NASCAR's most popular driver said he actually likes the pack racing and "enjoyed the hell out of" Sunday's race, in which he finished second to Brad Keselowski.

"We had a terrible accident that people were injured in, but that has been a possibility for years," he said. "It's almost amusing to me that everyone's opinion has turned by what happened when the possibility was there all along. It's just frustrating a little bit to see a little bit of the carelessness."

Earnhardt said the problem can be fixed by slowing down the cars, not tearing down the track.

"That last lap of the race was the fastest ran by anybody," he said. "Brad ran a lap average of 199 pushing the 99 [Edwards] car. Me and [Ryan Newman] were running a quarter- to a half-mile an hour slower in average laps.

"NASCAR really wants to see cars run around the 190 mph range. We are doing 10 more miles per hour and being allowed to [tag] up bumper to bumper. That's where the threshold is for cars getting airborne. We have to think about what we can do to get under that threshold a little bit and not create that situation in the future."

Johnson said unless drivers are forced to let off the gas as they have to do at Daytona, NASCAR's only other restrictor plate track, big wrecks such as the one that sent Edwards into the catch fence and injured seven spectators will happen.

Johnson scoffed at the notion that NASCAR's governing body can control such havoc by more effectively policing bump-drafting and blocking as promised Monday.

"I don't think they can control it," Johnson said. "They can make some judgment calls, and say that was too aggressive and penalize people. Then they're going to open themselves to harsh criticism over making a call or not making a call.

"[Officials] can talk until they're blue in the face up there, but when we get in those cars we're going to race and try to get position. Regardless of the ass-chewing we get before we pull on the track, you're going to do what you have to do to win. I just don't see an easy solution."

On that, he and Earnhardt are on the same page.

"Part of me is a little angry because it's almost as if [NASCAR] is shoving the responsibility to what happened on Sunday totally on the drivers' shoulders, as if all our crazy blocking and weaving has ruined the day, which isn't the case," he said.

"Guys are going to race hard. They're going to be aggressive and try to win. I didn't see anything in the race up until that point that made me feel like somebody needed to step in or NASCAR needed to do something different. I never felt at any point in the race NASCAR wasn't doing enough or somebody needed to be reprimanded."

Earnhardt said he would "advise against doing anything extra or being stricter" as NASCAR officials suggested when arguing the drivers weren't doing a good enough job policing themselves.

"You run the risk of taking the race out of the driver's hand," Earnhardt said. "We do a good job of policing it pretty good on our own now. It is racing. First and foremost, we're out there racing ... blocking and weaving and carrying on is part of the game."

Johnson said blocking and bump-drafting will only get worse as drivers become more familiar with the new car and understand ways to gain an advantage.

"It's kind of funny," he said. "They say the aggressive driving goes on all the way around the track. We all laugh whenever they say that each week at those plate races. What are you supposed to do, just ride?

"It's really a product of the track. I guess a lot of the fans' opinions, the drivers' opinion, is we need to get rid of those things or make them more like Daytona where you actually have to lift so you get out of those big wads of cars."

NASCAR has no plan to mandate a change in the configuration at Talladega and track officials don't see a need for change. Both say the excitement created by that type of racing is one of the things the sport was built on.

"The most exciting races that we have today are both at Daytona and Talladega," Sprint Cup Series director John Darby said, according to The Associated Press. "I think there's more value in continuing the [safety] efforts ... than turning those two very historical, very exciting racetracks into flat parking lots."

Johnson said it was fortunate that Edwards and Keselowski, as well as Newman and Earnhardt, broke away from the rest of the field at Talladega when the accident occurred. Edwards went airborne after he came across the front of Keselowski's car in an attempt to hold on to the lead. Newman then struck the No. 99, catapulting it into the catch fence.

"When a car gets into a fence it shreds it," Johnson said. "If Carl's car would have been maybe four feet higher and didn't touch the retaining wall and slowly went into the catch fence, man, that could have been bad. The car could have gone through it or it would have started pulling that car apart like Geoff Bodine's truck years back."

If the rest of the pack had been closer as typically is the case, the cars of Edwards or Newman could have been hit again.

"Multiple things could have happened," Johnson said. "Hard impacts are not good. We have a very safe environment for that. The cars, and even the catch fence for that matter, are designed for one impact.

"You get multiple impacts on a car or multiple impacts on that catch fence and you've got some big problems."

Johnson hopes enough drivers will talk to NASCAR to force a change. He intends to.

"We don't need to flirt with that line," he said. "We don't need to be injuring fans. We don't need to put a car in the catch fence. The catch fence with the cables versus the steel car, it's like a cheese grater.

"I don't see a remedy in any way, shape or form unless they bulldoze the corners."

Debris from the accident injured seven fans in the stands. One woman remained hospitalized Tuesday in fair condition with a broken jaw, the AP reported.

Earnhardt won't be among those joining Johnson's cause.

"People have raced in this sport under far, far more dangerous situations," he said. "We're in pretty good shape now with how safe the cars are and what NASCAR has done to try to keep things within reason. It's hard to tell whether the wreck Sunday was an oddity or something that could easily happen again.

"How easily could that happen again? That's the question you have to ask yourself."

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

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