O'Donnell: 'No greater priority' than SAFER expansion

NASCAR executive also discusses qualifying inspection and more

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NASCAR Executive Vice President and Chief Racing Development Officer Steve O’Donnell said Monday that there is "no greater priority" for the sanctioning body and its affiliated tracks than the expanded use of impact-absorbing protective barriers.

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O’Donnell’s remarks, made during a video interview Monday morning with NASCAR.com (which you can watch above), came one day after Jeff Gordon made heavy contact with an unprotected concrete retaining wall on the backstretch at Atlanta Motor Speedway. Gordon’s wreck came just eight days after a heavy crash at Daytona International Speedway that indefinitely sidelined Kyle Busch with multiple lower-leg injuries after he hit a concrete wall without the Steel and Foam Energy Reduction (SAFER) barrier system.
 
O’Donnell said his team will continue to focus on additional safety measures — with both immediate and longer-term implications — as the NASCAR schedule turns this weekend to Las Vegas Motor Speedway, the opening venue in the three-race West Coast swing.
 
"I think from our perspective, no different than Daytona," O’Donnell said. "We said that there’s no greater priority for NASCAR in working with the tracks to have SAFER everywhere. In terms of where it makes sense, obviously there’s some challenges with different gates where you’ve got to look at some other technologies, but for us, the process is in place for short-term plans where we’ve worked with Atlanta and the upcoming West Coast tracks, and longer-term, implementing the SAFER barriers as quickly as we can."
 
As a short-term safety measure, Atlanta speedway officials added 130 linear feet of tire barriers along the frontstretch in the days leading up to Sunday’s Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500, a move by track president Ed Clark that drew commendations from O’Donnell. But tire barriers weren’t in place for Gordon’s No. 24 Chevrolet at the point of contact, just feet from where the backstretch’s SAFER coverage ended.
 
"One clarification, I think some of the fans I saw on social media asked why weren’t there tire barriers where Jeff hit, and that’s a challenge for us because that’s not always the best solution," O’Donnell said. "In that case, potentially a tire barrier can sling the car back out into traffic, and obviously that presents an even greater issue. We are working with the tracks short-term to implement any and all safety initiatives we can. Obviously, we believe the car is as safe as it possibly can be. There’s always new learnings that we can apply, but again, no greater priority for us and the tracks than to implement SAFER."
 
The rest of the Atlanta race weekend provided a virtual potpourri of topics for O’Donnell’s competition department. In terms of new pit-road officiating technology, which debuted with the season-opening Daytona 500, O’Donnell said teams have adapted quickly to the system and that the feared rash of penalties hasn’t materialized early on.
 
The officiating process has brought a new level of transparency to governing pit stops, a development that should take another leap forward next month at Texas Motor Speedway, O’Donnell indicated.
 
"We’re seeing calls made but we have the ability to immediately get that to television, to the race fans, and ultimately to the teams to show them what the penalty is and why we called it," he said. "As we head into Texas, we’ll continue to get better. We’ll be able to send that video almost in real time to the pit box, which again will be another improvement. We really like the way that it’s performed so far. We’re learning every week, but it’s something that can get better and better as the season goes on."
 
O’Donnell also tackled the topic of the inspection process and why 13 teams were left in the cold for Coors Light Pole Qualifying on Friday at Atlanta, forcing several championship-caliber drivers to start from the rear of the 43-car field. Several drivers were critical of the delays, which O’Donnell said could prompt an expanded window of inspection time this weekend.
 
"When you look at everyone coming into the event, we had some challenges through the inspection process," O’Donnell said. "With the new rules, teams are going to push the envelope a little bit, but there’s also some learnings on our side where as we go into Vegas, we can look at some different things, potentially extend the inspection process, but overall really happy with seeing the level of competition."
 
O’Donnell also recapped his observations from a busy Saturday schedule, which featured the first scheduled same-day doubleheader for two NASCAR national series at the same track. O’Donnell again lauded Clark’s cooperation, saying that the turnaround time between the races for the XFINITY and Camping World Truck Series went quicker than expected.
 
O’Donnell left the door open for future twin bills if other speedways expressed interest.
 
"I think it’s a balance," O’Donnell said. "It depends on the marketplace. It’s obviously got to work, and work within the weekend schedule. Certainly, Atlanta provided that for us with its close proximity to a lot of the teams’ homes. We’ll get feedback from the industry. If the tracks that were out there saw that and want to take a look at it, that’s something we would certainly entertain."

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