Sports

Almirola crash is violent reminder safety doesn’t eliminate danger

KANSAS CITY, KS - MAY 13: Safety crew workers place Aric Almirola, driver of the #43 Smithfield For
Safety crew workers place driver Aric Almirola on a stretcher after cutting off the roof of his car following a crash at Kansas Speedway on May 13.
(Jonathan Ferrey / Getty Images)

NASCAR races can be deceiving, as drivers occasionally go bump in the night while chasing speed.

Cars get destroyed. Racers walk away unscathed. All is good. Until it’s not.

NASCAR will be one man down this season. Aric Almirola is on the mend after suffering a compression fracture of his T5 vertebra during a multicar pileup at Kansas Speedway on Saturday.

Almirola “is mobile and will follow-up with his doctors in Charlotte” after his release from a Kansas City hospital, according to a statement from Richard Petty Motorsports. He is back at his home in Mooresville, N.C., and will be out at least six weeks.

“Well, I mean, it’s a dangerous sport,” Brad Keselowski told reporters after the race. “Always has been; always will be. Sometimes we forget that and maybe take for granted that you see real hard hits and people walk away, and then you see one where someone doesn’t, and it puts things back into perspective just how dangerous it can be.”

The sport is not nearly as dangerous as it was in February 2001 when Dale Earnhardt died on the last lap of the Daytona 500 after hitting the outside wall on Turn 4. Earnhardt, 49, suffered a severe fracture to the base of his skull, causing bruising and bleeding in the soft tissue in his brain.

And it’s not nearly as dangerous as it was in May 2000 when Adam Petty, 19, died from a traumatic brain injury after an accident during a practice lap at the New Hampshire Motor Speedway.

NASCAR officials got up to speed on increasing safety standards, making head-restraint devices mandatory and putting up SAFER barriers at tracks to help soften wall impacts.

All these innovations have lulled us into a sense of security. Cars routinely flip in the air at Talladega, everybody cheers, and drivers walk away unhurt.

No one has died in any of NASCAR’s three highest levels of racing — Monster Energy Cup Series, Xfinity Series and Camping World Truck Series — since Earnhardt’s accident.

“NASCAR has made really good safety improvements over the past 10, 15 years,” Kansas pole-sitter Ryan Blaney said, “and they’re always improving, so they’ll look at that incident and see what they can do better to prevent that from happening ever again.”

Accidents like the one in Kansas obviously give everyone pause. Almirola’s No. 43 Ford was involved in a fiery multicar accident on Lap 200 during Saturday night’s race after Joey Logano lost control.

Almirola’s window net was lowered as safety workers cut the roof and roll cage off Almirola’s car to remove him. He was then pulled from the car, placed on a board and airlifted to the hospital.

“I’m just saying a lot of prayers for Aric right now,” Logano said Saturday night. “That’s the last thing you want to see, a big hit like that for anyone. It’s unfortunate for everyone.”

Prayers indeed. It stinks that Almirola suffered a fractured vertebra.

But everyone was spared a much bigger tragedy: At least NASCAR Nation did not have to bury another fallen driver.

Bowyer looking ahead

Perhaps Clint Bowyer was expecting a little home cooking — and some comfort food — when he returned to race in his home state of Kansas last weekend.

Sorry, Clint. Denied.

Bowyer had a solid run but still finished ninth. He has not won a race in 160 consecutive starts, although things are looking perkier these days now that he is with the Stewart-Haas Racing team.

“To be honest with you, you don’t even think about that,” Bowyer said of the losing streak before the race. “You think about winning. I never think about how long it has been. I think about how you are going to get it done. ...

“All the past that has happened is the furthest thing from my mind because you are back to sitting in equipment capable of winning these races and competing at the highest level.”

The flip side of things? Bowyer is 10th overall in the Cup standings, cruising at a solid pace to make the playoffs even without the victory.

Junior’s realm

Dale Earnhardt Jr. has 2.11 million followers on Twitter. But he really wasn’t active until the wee hours of the night after he won the Daytona 500 in February 2014. He tweeted a selfie outside a statue honoring his father at Daytona International Speedway.

From that moment on, he’s been a social media force.

For that, he can thank his Hendrick Motorsports teammate and social-media wing man Jimmie Johnson.

“Jimmie was adamant on coaching me and telling me how it’s useful and why I would want to do it,” Earnhardt said. “None of the other drivers, or anyone else for that matter, was really pushing me to go in that direction. And he’s like, ‘Man, you’re going to like it.’

“This is something cool. It’s been a great experience to understand the social side of it; not just Twitter, but a lot of other aspects of it as well.”

sports@latimes.com