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Stewart predicts Daytona disaster

Dustin Long, Greensboro News & Record

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Defending series champion Tony Stewart says that "somebody is going to die at Daytona or Talladega" unless NASCAR prevents cars from slamming into the back of each other.

Stewart's comments Sunday come nearly five years after Dale Earnhardt's death at Daytona International Speedway – the last racing fatality in any of NASCAR's top three series. Stewart worries that the upcoming tributes to Dale Earnhardt won't be the last.

"Five years from now, we're probably going to have to do another tribute for another driver because we're probably going to kill somebody from Wednesday through Sunday," Stewart said after finishing third in the Budweiser Shootout. "It could be me. It could be Dale (Earnhardt) Jr. It could be anybody out there."

The 72-lap exhibition race, won by rookie Denny Hamlin, was among the event's most exciting races in recent years -- and most dangerous. Fenders were crumpled. Tire marks littered cars. And drivers were left breathless. All this at more than 185 mph.

"(Stewart) is repeating what everyone knows," Jamie McMurray said after the race. "As a fan watching this, it's obviously spectacular. As a driver, it's insane."

Said Earnhardt Jr.: "If I had my way, we wouldn't be running this package."

NASCAR has made the cars equal, making it difficult to pass. Drivers discovered a few years ago that ramming the rear bumper of the leading car pushes that car ahead. That helps a line of cars move forward. Otherwise, cars would run side-by-side lap after lap.

Although the tactic called bump-drafting is not new, drivers are hitting each other harder and doing it other than on the straightaways. The contact can be so jarring that the driver slammed can lose control of his car and crash. Drivers consider it a cardinal sin to bump-draft in the corners or the tri-oval, yet it happens.

Stewart said that NASCAR should not allow teams to reinforce the bumpers, in essence, allowing the bump-drafting to continue. Stewart says if the front bumper would crumple with such an impact, drivers wouldn't bump-draft for fear of damaging their car.

Until something is done, the bumping and beating continues. Stewart said he nearly crashed three times in Sunday's race after he was hit from behind. Never a fan of this type of racing, Stewart unleashed his displeasure moments after exiting his car. His comments challenge NASCAR's safety-first mantra.

"This is their big push, safety," Stewart said. "(His idea) is not a performance issue. This is not trying to do anything to help one manufacturer versus another. This is, 'hey, we've got to do this before we hurt the guys that are going out there and trying to put on a good show for the race fans out there.' "

Stewart later met with NASCAR officials, including President Mike Helton and Cup Director John Darby. Stewart reportedly was professional in his discussion about the issue. Stewart declined comment after the meeting.

While NASCAR listened to Stewart's comments, don't expect any changes before this week's Daytona 500, said Jim Hunter, NASCAR vice president of communication.

"It's been a challenge for us on bump-drafting," Hunter said. "Number one, drivers have to control bump-drafting. It's become a problem, and we know that it's a problem. Any solution that we've looked for to date we have to make sure that we don't make the cars less safe.

"It's been a challenge for us. We'll continue to have discussions with Tony and others ... about trying to find a better solution."

Earnhardt Jr. said that he doesn't anticipate this being as big an issue for the 500 since that's a longer race. He noted that Sunday's race -- 128 laps shorter than next week's event -- caused drivers to react with less abandon.

Earnhardt said a bigger concern should not be the cars.

"I think the race track is in poor condition," he said. "We run around the middle of the corner because the bottom is so dang rough. Lot of bad bumps that moves the cars around when you're side-by-side."

Earnhardt also admits there are other issues.

"The drivers are the biggest part of it," he said. "But how do you calm down some of these guys? I've done it. I've made mistakes. I still make mistakes. A lot of these guys just have that mentality where they run real hard and run on top of each other."