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How Do NASCAR Drivers Survive Crashes? (Explained)

NASCAR drivers survive some horrific crashes. Since 2001, we have seen our fair share of hard wrecks where drivers don’t just survive but they also walk away from them immediately. You may therefore be wondering how NASCAR drivers survive crashes at such high impact. 

NASCAR drivers survive crashes mainly because of the enhanced safety features found in NASCAR cars. These features have improved since NASCAR debuted the Car of Tomorrow in 2007, which went full-time in 2008, to the point where drivers almost always walk away from even the worst wrecks. 

Below, we will describe what happens when a NASCAR crash occurs. We will further outline how common NASCAR crashes are and talk about the safety features in these cars that allow drivers to walk away from some ultra-hard impacts. We will also talk about crash-related injuries and fatalities. 

What Happens When There Is A Crash In NASCAR?

When there is a crash in NASCAR, they’ll wave a yellow flag, and the race will enter into a caution period. This freezes the field until the crashed cars get serviced. However, lead changes may still occur. If a crash is bad enough, it’ll result in a red flag, halting the race for a period of time.

In NASCAR, crashes are inevitable, and most drivers will tell you that they are just part of the sport. When cars are racing at such high speeds and jockeying for position when the stakes are at their highest, the slightest contact can lead to detrimental consequences. 

Sometimes, only a single car spins and hits the SAFER barrier. But there are unfortunate events during a NASCAR race where a crash can collect ten or more cars. Any time a car spins, even if they don’t crash into the SAFER barrier, NASCAR will wave the yellow flag, freeze the field, and the race will enter a caution phase. 

When a race falls under caution, only the first car one lap down, deemed the Lucky Dog, can pass the other cars as they return to the lead lap. However, the field remains frozen until pit road opens and cars enter for their crews to provide service. 

Lead Changes May Occur

Under caution, lead changes and changes in track position may occur when the pits are open. Since NASCAR teams often use crashes and the subsequent caution flag for pit stops, as they can save time while those still on track are going slower than normal, the race on and off of pit road begins. 

Now, drivers cannot literally race one another down pit road. Instead, they must conform to a speed limit, often between 35 and 55 mph (56-89 kph). Their crews are the ones racing here as they try to provide a two to four-tire change, add fuel, and provide necessary adjustments in the fastest possible time. 

When the cars exit pit road, they must still conform to the same speed limits listed above. So, lead and track position changes may occur, either between cars pitting faster than their rivals, or some drivers staying out on track instead of pitting, therefore gaining track position over those that were once in front of them.

Red Flags May Occur

A few crashes in NASCAR will bring out a red flag. This often happens when a wreck is so bad that NASCAR deems it unsafe to even continue the event under caution. When a red flag occurs, the cars will stop at a safe position on the race track while safety crews clean up excess debris. 

Sometimes, it is not debris but damage to the wall or the catch fence that necessitates a red flag. In NASCAR, the spectators are dangerously close to the track, separated from the cars by only a catch fence. If the catch fence is damaged during a wreck, the race must be red flagged until safety crews can fix the damage. This occurred following Bobby Allison’s crash at Talladega in 1987.

Also, if in the event the driver must be extradited from the car either because of injury or because they cannot exit the vehicle, such as the driver’s side being pinned to the wall, NASCAR will often wave the red flag until the driver is safely out of the car

KEY POINTS

• NASCAR crashes often result in cautions or even red flags

• This causes many drivers to rush into the pits to take advantage of the slower race pace

• This can result in many position and even lead changes

How Common Are NASCAR Crashes?

NASCAR crashes are common and are a part of the sport. They happen in nearly every race. Rarely will you see a race run caution-free, not counting competition cautions that mark the end of the first two stages of a race. The frequency of NASCAR crashes actually depends on the specific track.

While it is a larger track, almost 80% of all drivers that entered the Daytona 500 were involved in a crash from 2017 to 2021. This number was way up from the 45% involved in crashes at the Daytona 500 from 2012 to 2016. 

As you can probably figure out, the number of wrecked cars at the Daytona 500 is an unusually large number. And if you watch the race, you will notice that Daytona and Talladega don’t necessarily have as many crashes. But their crashes, because of the proximity in which the cars race, are much larger, which is why you hear “The Big One” being mentioned. 

The Numbers

Despite the higher number of drivers involved in crashes at Daytona from 2017 to 2021, the number of crashes and spins was actually lower during this timeframe. In 2017, that number sat at 188, the highest since 211 in 2008, which was also the first full season of the Car of Tomorrow (CoT). However, 2018 to 2021 saw the following numbers: 135, 148, 151, and 137. 

Dating back to 2003, only the 2012 season carried a lower number of crashes and spins with 129. NASCAR crashes were most common between the years 2003 and 2009. In those seasons, NASCAR saw at least 200 spins and crashes from 2003 until 2008. In 2009, that number dropped to 184, which was higher than the number of crashes in 2010, 2011, and 2012. 

The table below gives you an accurate visual of the number of crashes and spins for each NASCAR season

YearNumber Of Crashes And Spins% Change YOY% Change vs 2003
2003235
2004204-13%-13%
2005251+23%+7%
2006236-6%+0.4%
2007238+1%+1%
2008211-11%-10%
2009184-13%-22%
2010178-3%-24%
2011176-1%-25%
2012129-27%-45%
2013174+35%-26%
2014179+3%-24%
2015181+1%-23%
2016183+1%-22%
2017188+3%-20%
2018135-28%-43%
2019148+10%-37%
2020151+2%-36%
2021137-9%-42%
KEY FACT: The total number of crashes and spins in the 2021 NASCAR Cup Series Championship was 42% lower than the same figure in 2003, but the biggest dip came in 2012, when there were just 129 incidents

Number Of Accidents By NASCAR Driver

2021 was the final season for the Generation 6 car, and as you can see from the table above, only 2012 and 2018 had fewer accidents and spins. Despite the lower numbers in 2021, every full-time driver was involved in at least one crash. What is interesting about the data is that the number of crashes a driver is involved in does not always correlate to their success in the NASCAR standings

The table below illustrates the five drivers involved in the most accidents during the 36-race 2021 NASCAR season, their crash rate per race, and their overall finishing positions at the end of the season. The crash rate is simply the ratio of races the driver competed in to the number of races in which they were involved in an accident.

For example, a crash rate of 25% means the driver was involved in an accident in 25% of the races they started, or a rate of one accident every four races.

DriverCrash RateFinal Points Standing
Ricky Stenhouse Jr. 47%22nd
Anthony Alfredo 42%30th
Alex Bowman42%14th
Ross Chastain39%20th 
Brad Keselowski 33%6th 

As you can see from above, two of the drivers (Bowman and Keselowski) earned a trip to the NASCAR playoffs, with the latter earning a trip to the Round of Eight. Ross Chastain was in his first full-time ride with a decent team and finished just four positions outside of a playoff spot.

You can also say the same for the five drivers who had the lowest number of accidents. The table below shows their rate of on-track incidents and their final place in the standings. 

Driver Crash RateFinal Standing 
Josh Bilicki 6%Ineligible for championship
Joey Logano11%8th 
Matt DiBennedetto 14%18th
Kyle Larson 17%1st
Chris Buescher 17%19th 

You will notice that the drivers involved in fewer incidents usually finished higher in the final standings overall, yet only Logano and Larson made the NASCAR playoffs, with Larson winning the championship

What Causes NASCAR Crashes?

Some crashes can be the product of an event’s overall prestige. Take the Daytona 500, for example. It’s the Super Bowl of NASCAR, and some NASCAR teams will go above and beyond for a strong finish

And it’s also why you will see lesser talented drivers sometimes finish far better than their average finish for the season. In 2022, Bubba Wallace and Chase Briscoe finished second and third, respectively. In 2021, Ryan Preece and Ross Chastain (before he broke out in 2022) finished sixth and seventh, respectively. The list goes on and on through the years. 

But it’s not just a race’s prestige that causes crashes. Some of it comes from driver inexperience at certain race tracks. While they all made their name at these tracks in the Xfinity Series and Truck Series, it is another game entirely when new drivers race against Cup Series opponents. It’s no different than a star AHL hockey player joining the NHL for the first time. 

Other drivers may have experience, but some tracks just don’t conform to their tastes. You may have noticed that certain drivers may seem as though they are always crashing out of road course, superspeedways, or short track events. They just aren’t comfortable racing there, and they are more likely to make a mistake and either crash out or cause a wreck

KEY POINTS

• Crashes are inevitable in a NASCAR season, with some tracks seeing more on average than others

• The number of crashes per season has decreased since the early 2000s

• Just because a driver crashes more often than others, it doesn’t mean they will finish lower in the points standings at the end of the year

How Do NASCAR Drivers Survive Crashes?

NASCAR drivers survive crashes thanks to the safety features implemented on the cars. NASCAR hasn’t seen a fatality in a Cup Series race since Dale Earnhardt in 2001. Before and as a result of this, prominent fatalities caused NASCAR to prioritize adding more safety features to their cars.

Since the 2001 season, NASCAR has gone out of its way to add safety features to both the cars and the tracks. But the safety aspects of the sport actually preceded Dale Earnhardt’s death at the 2001 Daytona 500. 

Take the 1993 DieHard 500, where Jimmy Horton went over the wall and landed outside the track. Horton walked away from the wreck, but NASCAR immediately extended the catch fence around the entire track to prevent future incidents from happening. Horton also walked away from his mangled car, in which the broadcast credited the car’s roll cage as a key safety feature. 

During the 1993 Winston 500 at the same track, Rusty Wallace survived a horrific flip in which he suffered a broken wrist. Racing for the win alongside Dale Earnhardt and Ernie Irvan, Earnhardt tapped Wallace in the rear, sending his car flying and barrel-rolling into the infield. This crash, along with Johnny Benson’s flip in the Busch Series, prompted NASCAR to add roof flaps to the car. 

Unfortunately, there were fatalities that occurred after these incidents. Neil Bonnett was killed while practicing for the 1994 Daytona 500. Then in 1997, John Nemecek died during a Truck Series race. In 2000, NASCAR lost Adam Petty, Kenny Irwin Jr., and Tony Roper before they ultimately lost Dale Earnhardt in February 2001. 

NASCAR Prioritizes Safety 

While the number of drivers who have died in NASCAR crashes is not as high as one may think, NASCAR’s number of near-misses is almost off the charts. Drivers like Richard Petty, Geoff Bodine, Tony Stewart, Lee Petty, Stanley Smith, and Ernie Irvan are just a few of dozens of drivers who suffered one or more close calls with serious injuries to go with them. 

Earnhardt’s death was the last straw, and NASCAR immediately started working on a new car dubbed the Car of Tomorrow (CoT). The CoT greatly enhanced the cars’ overall safety features as they expanded on the HANS device, the roll cage, and the five, six, and seven-point seat belt system NASCAR drivers were already using. 

Following Blaise Alexander’s fatal crash in an October 2001 ARCA race, NASCAR mandated the HANS device. But their end goal was to do everything in their power to ensure another driver death would not occur again, which was the point behind the enhanced safety features shown in the CoT. They also did away with concrete walls and introduced the SAFER barrier. 

Car Of Tomorrow’s Safety Features

The CoT debuted in 2007 in a timeshare with the Generation 4 cars, but it wasn’t until 2008 that it became a full-time ride on the NASCAR circuit. While safety was the main theme for the CoT, NASCAR also introduced several cost-cutting measures. Something that continued with the CoT’s successors, the Generation 6 and Next Gen car. 

One notable safety feature came inside the cockpit, which NASCAR expanded by two inches (5 cm) in height and four inches (10 cm) in width. They also moved the cockpit closer to the center. This allowed NASCAR to render their crumple zones, zones on the car that absorb the impact of a crash and, therefore, crimple, more effectively. 

This deflected energy away from the driver in the event of a crash. They also placed a thick layer of foam in the doors and further reinforced this foam on the driver’s side door with steel bars. The larger windows allowed the driver a faster getaway when a crash occurred. And the seats themselves were more fixed than those seen on the Generation 4 car. 

The fuel cell had thicker walls and held 17.5 gallons (66 liters) of fuel instead of the previous 22 gallons (83 liters). This lessened the chance of a fuel-induced fire

Michael McDowell’s 2008 Crash

The CoT’s safety features passed their test during qualifying at Texas Motor Speedway. Michael McDowell’s car hooked and crashed so hard into the wall that it left black skid marks where he made his initial impact. Even more impressive, when you watch a video of the wreck, McDowell slammed the wall on the driver’s side, which is the side the driver did not want to hit the wall on. 

The car slid down the track on its roof before it barrel-rolled at least two-dozen times until the remaining energy dissipated and the car came to a rest, its roof dented from when it initially turned over. It is also worth noting that McDowell crashed into the wall at 180 mph (290 kph)

When the car rested on its tires, McDowell was moving around in the car before he climbed out, waved to the cheering crowd, and walked away from the wreck. 

Generation 6’s Safety Features

While safety features defined the CoT, the Generation 6 car expanded on what its predecessor brought with a stronger roof thanks to a center roof support bar and a forward roof bar. The Gen 6 design also introduced larger roof flaps, intended to help keep the cars planted better on the track surface. 

NASCAR also sought to make the cars easier to handle. This necessitated a lighter car, new camber rules, plus a taller spoiler. There wasn’t a huge improvement to the safety features, but nonetheless, you saw the car pass a major test at the 2015 Coke Zero 400. 

In the race’s last lap, Austin Dillon’s car lost control on the final lap and flew over multiple cars before his car hit the catch fence at an estimated 190 mph (306 kph) before it came to a complete stop. The car hit the asphalt before sliding on its roof to the bottom of the track. Dillon climbed out of the car and, like McDowell seven seasons before, waved to the crowd and walked away. 

Next Gens Car’s Safety Features 

Dillon also had a head-on crash at Charlotte Motor Speedway in November 2021 while running a test for the Next Gen car. When compared to previous data, NASCAR stated that Dillon’s collision measured above average in terms of the force of the impact, but he would walk away from the wreck and return to the track later that same day. 

For the Next Gen, NASCAR added foam bumpers to better absorb high impacts. Further safety features addressed the backward slide, in which NASCAR cars are notorious for going airborne, even with the addition of roof flaps. 

This prompted NASCAR to add a flap under the rear bumper at the car’s diffuser. Cables connecting the roof flap to the diffusers flap let them deploy simultaneously. Furthermore, the car’s body is more durable, and many of the safety features from the CoT and the Generation 6 car remain prominent fixtures in the Next Gen. 

KEY POINTS

• NASCAR safety has improved dramatically over the years, largely as a result of fatal crashes

• The cars and drivers now make use of various safety features, like roof flaps and the HANS device

• Drivers are now able to survive incredibly violent crashes, often walking away with only minor injuries

How Many NASCAR Drivers Have Died In Crashes?

29 NASCAR drivers have died in crashes in the NASCAR Cup Series. These were primarily crashes between the 50s and 70s. However, a few occurred from 1980 to 2001. 8 of these fatalities have occurred at the Daytona International Speedway, several of which occurred during qualifying.

NASCAR has unfortunately seen a number of fatalities during their sanctioned events spanning from the Truck and up to the Cup Series. The number of deaths in NASCAR is not as high as you may think, but they were becoming quite a concern during the 1990s and into the 2000s

Besides Dale Earnhardt, Adam Petty (Busch Series), Kenny Irwin Jr, Tony Roper (Truck Series), John Nemecek (Truck Series), and Neil Bonnett, NASCAR also lost J.D. McDuffie in 1991 and Rodney Orr in 1994. Despite the seemingly high number of fatalities, the NASCAR Cup Series has only seen 29 of them. Most of these fatalities occurred between the 1950s and 1970s, while 10 occurred between 1980-2001.

KEY FACT: The NASCAR Cup Series has not recorded a driver fatality since 2001

Where Most Fatalities Occurred

Of the 29 deaths in the NASCAR Cup Series, eight occurred at Daytona International Speedway

NASCAR drivers that have died at Daytona include:

  • Billy Wade (1965)
  • Talmadge Prince (1970)
  • Freddy Hassler (1972)
  • Ricky Knotts (1980)
  • Bruce Jacobi (1983)
  • Rodney Orr (1994)
  • Neil Bonnett (1994)
  • Dale Earnhardt (2001)

Fatalities By Decade

DecadeDeathsDrivers
1950s7Larry MannFrank ArfordLuke FigaroJohn McVittyClint McHughColton PriddyBobby Myers 
1960s7Joe WeatherlyFireball RobertsJimmy PardueBilly WadeBuren SkeenHarold KiteBilly Foster
1970s4Talmadge PrinceFreddy HasslerLarry SmithTiny Lund
1980s5Ricky KnottsBruce JacobiTerry SchoonoverRick Baldwin Grant Adcox
1990s3J.D. McDuffieRodney OrrNeil Bonnett
2000s3Adam PettyKenny Irwin Jr.Dale Earnhardt
2010s0None

Do NASCAR Drivers Get Hurt In Crashes?

NASCAR drivers can get hurt in crashes, but this has become a rarer sight as the safety of the sport has improved. While it is true that injuries can occur no matter how safe the cars get, it is also true that many drivers have walked away with nothing more than minor injuries after major crashes

During the CoT era in 2009, Carl Edwards flew into the catch fence at the Aaron’s 499 after Brad Keselowski turned him around. Edwards climbed out of his burning car and ran to the finish line, even if NASCAR did not credit his feat as a legitimate finish. 

However, even in NASCAR’s most modern era, not all drivers have been lucky. Below, you will find three prominent crashes that occurred where drivers were in obvious pain, prompting them to be transported to a nearby hospital. 

Elliott Sadler Pocono 2010

Dubbed as one of the hardest hits in the history of NASCAR, Sadler’s 2010 crash saw him hit the infield wall in Pocono head-on. It was such a violent impact that you could see Sadler almost fly forward when he hit the wall. The impact also caused the engine to disengage. Sadler was in obvious pain when the camera crew zeroed in on him, though he was able to exit his vehicle. 

When he described the incident later on, Sadler stated that he never blacked out during the crash. But he made a horrifying statement afterward when he said the nose of his car hit toward the ground while the tail lifted into the air. This sent Sadler spinning airborne from the point of impact to the car’s eventual landing spot. 

While Sadler looked to be seriously injured as he laid on the track and was later transported to a hospital, he later emerged to speak with the media. He stated that he mainly had the wind knocked out of him and was suffering from soreness but was otherwise okay. 

Denny Hamlin Auto Club 2013

On the last lap of the Auto Club 500, Denny Hamlin and Joey Logano were racing side by side for the win, along with Kyle Busch. Hamlin emerged in front of Logano, causing the latter to drift upwards and tag him. He could not correct his car and ended up hitting Logano, who slammed the outside wall. 

Hamlin drifted downwards and smashed into the retaining wall. While Hamlin managed to exit his car, he also collapsed onto the track, much like Sadler. After they airlifted him to a nearby medical facility, it was revealed Hamlin had a compression fracture in his L-1 vertebra, causing him to miss the next four races. 

Ryan Newman Daytona 2020

Newman’s wreck on the last lap of the 2020 Daytona 500 garnered the most media attention, mainly because of the huge impact his car took when it hit the SAFER barrier before turning upside down. Corey LaJoie ran into Newman’s car, which sent it back down the track and across the finish line. 

It took nearly 20 minutes to extradite Newman from the car and transport him to Halifax Medical Center, where he was listed in serious condition. However, his injuries were not life-threatening. Newman’s condition improved over the next two days, and he eventually walked out of the hospital less than 48 hours after the crash occurred, though he would miss the next three races. 

Injuries Have Become Rare

Despite the injuries that Sadler, Hamlin, and Newman suffered in their respective crashes, this has become a rare thing in the 21st century. These crashes were also outliers, with the drivers having taken unusually hard hits. The best part was that none of these drivers suffered life-threatening injuries, and they all returned to action after just a few races. 

Final Thoughts

NASCAR drivers survive crashes because of the safety features found in the cars. These safety features are required due to the frequency of crashes in NASCAR, with one occurring at nearly every race. This focus on safety is in response to various driver fatalities, the last of which was in 2001.