By JERRY BONKOWSKI
CONCORD, N.C. – Be honest: When you watched Jimmie Johnson's hard hit into the wall Saturday night at Charlotte Motor Speedway, how many of you reactively uttered two or three choice words at how vicious of a hit it was?
"Oh my God" would fit. So would "Holy ****", too.
Watching the wreck unfold from the CMS press box, I immediately said the latter. It was an emotional, knee-jerk reaction, what can I say?
But at the same time, something else struck me when I watched the replay on the press box TV monitor a few seconds later. It was actually chilling, a sense of déjà vu about an event that I will never forget for as long as I live.
The way Johnson's car spun, tried to correct itself, and then shot to the right and plowed hard – make that REAL HARD – into the outer retaining wall was virtually an instant replay of the crash that claimed the life of Dale Earnhardt at Daytona on Feb. 18, 2001.
The angle, the impact, the folding up of the right front end – were almost identical to the way Earnhardt's No. 3 hit the wall that fateful day.
The big difference, of course, was Johnson walked away, a bit woozy, but no less worse for the wear – while Earnhardt was tragically killed.
Go to YouTube and watch a replay of how Earnhardt's fateful crash unfolded. Then watch a replay of Johnson's wreck Saturday. They were so similar it was scary. About the only difference was the color and number of the cars involved, Earnhardt's black No. 3 to Johnson's blue and silver No. 48.
When Earnhardt was killed, it was a defining moment in so many of our lives, ranking among the most devastating events we've ever witnessed – and which we'll never forget, no matter how hard we try.
Yet more than anything, Johnson's crash Saturday proved beyond a shadow of a doubt just how far NASCAR has come in terms of safety strides. Unfortunately, it took Earnhardt's death to bring about those changes.
Saturday's wreck proved to not only be another and the latest illustration of those improvements, I challenge anyone to find me another wreck that has occurred since Earnhardt's that was – no pun intended – so dead-on in how it occurred. The only significant difference is that Earnhardt collected Ken Schrader in that wreck, while Johnson hit the wall without anyone running into him.
At first, I thought I was alone in my thoughts. Still, I posted comments about what I perceived as the similarities between the two wrecks on Twitter and Facebook – and almost immediately, several others responded in kind, having the same exact thought when Johnson hit. Those social media responses were followed by several emails, as well, from others who felt the same way.
And almost to the person of everyone who responded to my comments, we all held our collective breaths until we saw Johnson appear on TV, moving around behind the wheel of his wrecked race car, obviously in pain and, at the very least, having the wind knocked out of him.
“That stung for sure, but everything did its job,” Johnson said after being checked out in the infield medical center. “It was a pretty big impact."
Yet, the reigning five-time defending Sprint Cup champ walked away and talked away, all thanks to the safety elements that protected him so well.
During a post-race discussion Saturday, one of the top executives at Charlotte Motor Speedway agreed with my analysis of the Johnson/Earnhardt wrecks, adding that Johnson's crash may actually have been a harder hit at a higher speed than Earnhardt's.
Upon watching the videos of both wrecks again, I would have to agree with his analysis.
Which brings me back to the safety aspect. Say what you want about NASCAR, and there are lots of things it can be criticized about over the years, but there is absolutely no way any sane, rational person can do nothing but applaud the sanctioning body for all the safety gains it has made in the last 10 years.
It's not surprising or coincidental that since NASCAR became so focused on safety, we have not lost one driver to death behind the wheel. And, other than Steve Park and Jerry Nadeau, who suffered debilitating head injuries in wrecks in the first couple of years post-Earnhardt – and while NASCAR was still implementing all the safety enhancements it has made – we've had no other driver suffer a significant injury, particularly in the last five years.
We can thank the developers of the HANS device, the SAFER barriers, the crush zones in the Car of Tomorrow, the black box crash data collection devices, the improved helmets for much of those safety enhancements. They were on the front line of developing things that very few products can claim: that they actually saved lives – and we have the proof in what we've seen since they've been implemented.
But the greatest credit and thanks should go to NASCAR. If Brian France, Mike Helton, Robin Pemberton, John Darby and other higher-ups didn't take the dramatic and forceful stand that they did after Earnhardt passed away, the body count in the sport would not have stopped there.
I still remember Helton, with tears in his eyes yet trying to maintain a stoic demeanor, utter those four words that almost instantaneously circled the world and which will forever be etched in the brains of NASCAR fans everywhere: "We've lost Dale Earnhardt."
Helton, nor any other NASCAR official, has had to say anything even close to similar since then. That's why I have the same two words to say to NASCAR for its stand on making the sport as safe as humanly possible as I uttered when I saw Johnson finally climb out of his race car:
Indeed. And I bet Johnson and more than a few million NASCAR fans also said those same words more than a couple times Saturday night.