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NASCAR safety has never been better, but it's a moving target

The injuries sustained by Kyle Busch in the Xfinity Series race at Daytona last February led to the installation of more soft walls at tracks and more research in making drivers safer from the knees down. Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Anniversaries of unforgettable crashes this week show just how far NASCAR has come when looking at driver safety and just how far it has to go.

One year removed from one of the worst injuries to one of its top drivers in a NASCAR event in recent memory, NASCAR gets ready to open its season at Daytona International Speedway this Sunday with the Daytona 500. Nearly a year ago, Kyle Busch slammed into an unprotected Daytona wall at 90 mph, breaking his right leg and his left foot. He missed 11 races before his return, a return capped by a Sprint Cup championship.

The pain one could see in Busch's face as he exited the vehicle with his mangled legs and got onto a stretcher jarred the NASCAR fan base, as well as the establishment, and it spurred the installation of thousands of feet of new energy-absorbing walls and also forced NASCAR to take another look at the front area of the car.

The other anniversary that comes to mind when looking at NASCAR's path on driver safety also occurs this week, with the 15th anniversary of Dale Earnhardt Sr. dying on the final lap of the 2001 Daytona 500. In the years since his death, no driver has died in a NASCAR national series stock car event.

No racing series goes 15 years without a fatality just by luck. While circumstance plays a role when a driver dies, advances in safety since Earnhardt's death probably have prevented more tragedy. NASCAR can consider itself both lucky and good when it comes to driver safety.

NASCAR's main safety gurus, Tom Gideon and John Patalak, have spent much of their lives working on racing safety, including Gideon's time at General Motors and Patalak's time at the forensic engineering firm ARCCA.

Busch's crash proved their work has helped drivers return to the race car but also that their work must continue at the NASCAR Research & Development Center. Their current focus in the aftermath of Busch's wreck and other recent accidents centers on floorboard crash boxes and seat angles.

"When that [Busch] crash occurred, we were very pleased with his outcome from the knees up," Patalak said. "It was a very severe hit, and the belts and the restraint system, the HANS [Head and Neck Support device], the helmet all worked exceptionally well. He maintained consciousness and was alert and aware -- maybe unfortunately with the injury he had.

"Obviously we're focused on the lower leg area, and we're looking at options for short-term solutions that we can implement without tearing up cars and at minimal cost that would still have a benefit and longer-term solutions that would involve tweaking structures in the car."

Busch didn't have any upper body injury possibly in part because of NASCAR's significant work on the restraint system, especially after Michael Annett broke his sternum in an accident in the Xfinity Series in February 2013. According to a paper NASCAR filed with the Society of Automotive Engineers, NASCAR found through a series of tests that crotch belts mounted farther rearward and outward would reduce the amount of chest acceleration significantly -- from 10 to 28 percent in tests of head-on impacts with the wall -- at its peak in the accident.

But they found another important factor: With the change in the crotch belt mounts, it should be paired with another belt to prevent movement vertically in case of a rollover. That new belt reduced head movement from 5.1 inches to 4.3 inches in a rollover.

Annett went to the R&D Center and spent about four hours there, where NASCAR safety personnel took measurements of him in his fire suit and in his seat to help develop the testing plan.

"I've seen the videos of the sled test set up from the measurement from me sitting in the car," Annett said. "Unfortunately it takes an incident to happen to figure out we do have a problem.

"I feel much better getting in the car knowing I was much safer than I was three or four years ago."

NASCAR last year began requiring that extra belt in the crotch area that specifically plays a role only when keeping a driver from falling out of the seat if upside-down. NASCAR also began requiring that all seat belt mounts be on the seat instead of the chassis.

"It's critical when talking about belt geometry -- short belts, they don't have to go back to the chassis, which has given us trouble in the past," Gideon said. "We have examples that go through the seat to the chassis that can sometimes get into trouble with routing and that sort of thing.

"That was a huge advance."

That belt-restraint system got a big test in July, when Austin Dillon's car flew into the Daytona catch fence and got ripped apart before landing back on the track, where it was then hit by Brad Keselowski's car.

"The crotch belt, being upside-down, kept me in the seat," Dillon said. "I remember unbuckling my seat and getting out and crawling out the window and it was still hooked tight and everything was good."

Dillon admits he didn't give the extra belt much thought -- except that it is uncomfortable to change belts -- before the accident.

"It's funny when you think about it and had a crash like I had, you don't even try to think about that," Dillon said. "After you have a crash like that, you want to work on that stuff. Beforehand, it's like plug it up, get it in there and figure it out.

"And then you have something like I went through, then wow, I'm thankful that [effort] is going into that and the force of NASCAR saying you have to run this and you have to have it in your car."

NASCAR also added a roof bar in 2013 designed to decrease roof crush by about an inch. NASCAR used information gathered from accidents from data recorders (which went into use in 2002 after Earnhardt's death) to set its testing parameters. NASCAR would drop cars upside-down from heights with the main impact on the A-pillar, closest to the driver's head.

When it comes to safety, experts still won't know just how well the initiatives perform. NASCAR introduced a new windshield in 2013 that proved much stronger in ballistic tests than the old one.

"We've been pleased with that, and that was an opportunity for us to make an improvement." Gideon said. "We really don't know [the exact effect]. When something looks good, you don't know how good it was.

"If you review the video and you see a huge shrapnel field and the windshield comes back intact, all you can say is nothing went through the windshield. You can't put the old windshield on it and repeat the test."

When Earnhardt died, the focus centered on the unprotected concrete walls and the stiffness of the chassis at the time. Since then, the steel-and-foam energy-absorbing (SAFER) barriers have been installed in areas of all tracks.

Tracks put in the barriers -- designed by the University of Nebraska Midwest Roadside Safety Facility -- in the spots most prone to accidents, but Busch's accident sparked another surge in installation in areas where NASCAR and tracks had decided they previously weren't necessary or worth the cost of more than $500 a foot.

International Speedway Corp. has added 54,000 linear feet at its 12 tracks since last year, and all of Daytona now has the barrier on all outside and inside walls, except for pit road. Speedway Motorsports Inc., which had plans at some tracks to add SAFER in 2015 before the Busch accident, added 13,000 feet of SAFER in 2015 across its eight tracks and has plans for 15,000 more in 2016.

Because the SAFER barrier absorbs energy, NASCAR can now look at ways to make the cars safer that might not have been applicable before because of the concrete walls. Officials can look at stiffening the car in areas to limit protrusion, such as in the Busch accident, Patalak said.

NASCAR updated drivers at their safety meeting last week about potential ideas for a crash box around the feet.

"It shouldn't [compromise anything]," Dillon said. "It's just a thicker piece in the cockpit area. So, what's going to hit is still the same material. This is just enclosing what's around our feet. ... I would like them to implement that pretty fast.

"The faster, the better. It was like a little bit more weight on the car, but for me, I think we'd give up weight any day to make the car safer."

Busch said he hasn't been all that involved in the development.

"Back when I was walking again, they were kind of working on that project, and they've been testing it ever since," Busch said. "They're learning things as they continue to go on and learning through crashes. It would be good to see some of that implemented."

NASCAR continues to conduct safety meetings annually with drivers. At last week's meeting, they talked about the angle of the seat, something that could have resulted in back injuries in the Austin Theriault crash at Las Vegas last year. The hit was so hard, a plastic clip on the back of his HANS broke. Theriault still uses a HANS, and he was back in action at the end of last year.

"A lot of things with seat angle and where your legs are and foot boxes and they are trying a lot of different things," driver Joey Logano said. "They are testing things and trying a lot of new things, and we have to get to the bottom of it to really understand everything with these new parts and really test them before they implement them in our race cars."

Keselowski, Theriault's truck owner, indicated more tests need to be done to confirm why Theriault was injured.

"It's a little premature to come to that conclusion, but it was somewhat of an indicator; it's an outlier, but everything in the vehicle performed to the highest extent possible," Keselowski said. "It's just a path that NASCAR is going down to try to understand to hopefully not have that injury again."

Those working in the safety world have no illusions that a driver won't die again in a NASCAR national series race. They know the science and the odds. Patalak and Gideon have helped author 12 technical papers published by the SAE in the past eight years to spread the word on what they've learned about racing safety, restraint systems, race-car structure, the laminated windshield and implementing and developing better incident data recorders.

"All the way to the top, we understand this is a dangerous sport and we're going pretty fast and things can happen," Gideon said. "What [we] have done is go around the car and say, 'What if?' ... That's why we have a better window net, the ballistic windshield.

"All that is just going around the car and saying we haven't had anything high injury yet, but we've seen things that lead us to believe that this could happen, statistically. Really, it's just trying to stay ahead of the game."