As rookie Michael McDowell barrel-rolled across Texas Motor Speedway, one thing became clear: NASCAR's latest safety measures are clearly working.
The soft walls and NASCAR's new car likely saved McDowell's life after a horrific accident that caught the attention of an industry desensitized to wrecks.
Not this time, though. Not even close. Drivers and crews standing on pit road during Friday's qualifying session seemed frozen in place as they watched McDowell's car lose control entering the first turn and slam nearly straight-on into the outside wall. The vicious impact sent his car flipping eight times around the track, and the most hardened veterans stood silent as they waited for the Toyota to finally come to a stop.
"That was the hardest hit I've ever seen anybody take," said two-time champion Tony Stewart, who stood silent on pit road, arms folded across his chest as he watched the car tumble. "That was a pretty impressive crash."
It was a horrific accident and a tremendous hit, so violent that many insiders compared it to the impact that killed Dale Earnhardt in 2001. But this time, the driver hopped quickly out of the car and offered a slight wave to the anxious crowd before he was ushered into the care center for a quick checkup. Not 20 minutes later, McDowell bounded away from his doctor visit for the first of what's turned into a whirlwind media tour for the kid who flipped and lived to tell about it. As McDowell has made the rounds of national television shows, he's used every opportunity to tout NASCAR's safety measures.
"To be able to walk away from that, let alone, but also rolling down the track 10 more times after that, I think that the new car is awesome and I really appreciate what NASCAR has done," the 23-year-old said.
But there was no gloating among NASCAR's top officials, who have taken heavy heat in the seven years since Earnhardt was killed. It took years for the deliberate body to complete its Car of Tomorrow project, which developed the car McDowell was driving during the accident. A bigger, boxier vehicle, it's been touted as the car that will foster better competition, cut down costs and, lastly, improve safety.
Yet the car hasn't been universally embraced, as drivers have griped about its performance and fans have complained its ruined the racing.
"We've made a lot of gains in the past 10 years, and we've got a lot more gains to make," said Robin Pemberton, NASCAR's vice president of competition.