FORT WORTH, Texas – You know the harrowing crash that Michael McDowell walked away from Friday at Texas Motor Speedway was something if it made Dale Earnhardt Jr. winning the pole for the Samsung 500 an afterthought.
Earnhardt Jr. ran a lap at 190.907 mph to earn the No. 1 starting spot for the first time since moving to Hendrick Motorsports, but that fact McDowell will be well enough to make his second career Sprint Cup start on Sunday was by far the most remarkable thing about this day.
McDowell, a 23-year-old driver from Phoenix, lost control in Turn 1 as he began his second qualifying lap and rammed head-on into the steel-and-foam energy reducing barrier protecting the concrete wall at the top of the 24-degree banking.
"I will count my blessings tonight and just thank God," said McDowell, whose car whirled off the SAFER barrier, spun on its roof a couple of times and then barrel-rolled eight times before coming to rest on its wheels.
The front and rear portions of the Toyota were virtually ripped away, but the driver's compartment of the new car NASCAR was developed with driver safety as a stated first priority remained intact. The wall also did its job, absorbing some of the impact as stacks of foam crushed behind the rolled steel tubes that make up the outside surface.
A few flames could be seen as the car tumbled down the track, but they went out quickly. McDowell started moving around as soon as it came to rest and emergency workers helped him climb out. He walked to an ambulance and was taken to the infield care center, where he was checked and released.
"I got to see the replay and it wasn't very good," McDowell said.
"That's one of the worst wrecks I've seen for sure in a while. I’m not excited I had to participate in it."
David Gilliland went out a few cars before McDowell and had a problem, dropping liquid on the track. A powder substance used to absorb fluid was put down, and as McDowell went into Turn 1 after running 182.933 mph on his first lap, a puff of white dust could be seen coming out from under the car.
"I came off Turn 4 on that first lap and it just felt a little bit off," McDowell said.
When the car slipped, McDowell tried to correct it but the car snapped to the right.
"I knew when it turned back to the right it was going to be big," he said.
"I wasn't knocked out. ... I felt every roll down the track. ... It wasn't a fun ride, that's for sure."
Tony Stewart watched the crash from pit road where he and most of the rest of the 46 drivers entered in Sunday's race were waiting to make their qualifying runs.
"That was the hardest hit I think I've ever seen anybody take," Stewart said. "It makes you look at what all NASCAR has done and say they've done a good job. We've got a lot of people to thank today."
The SAFER barrier was devised by a team led by Dr. Dean Sicking at the Midwest Roadside Safety Facility at the University of Nebraska. The project was supported by the Indy Racing League and, later, by NASCAR. The walls were first used at the 2002 Indianapolis 500 and by mid-2005 were up at all tracks where NASCAR holds Sprint Cup races.
"The way the wall wrapped around the car when it hit was amazing," driver Martin Truex Jr. said of Friday's incident.
Track crews replaced the foam stacks and welded patches across the damaged portion of the wall so qualifying could continue after a delay of one hour 12 minutes. Once qualifying ended, crews went to replace about 20 feet of the steel tubing.
The pole was eighth of Earnhardt Jr.'s career and his second at this 1.5-mile track. Carl Edwards was second at 189.487 mph with Kyle Busch, Ryan Newman and Jimmie Johnson rounding out the top five.
But the story of the day was McDowell's crash and the fact that the only real after effect of it was that he said he was mad that he'll have to use a back-up car Sunday.
All things considered, that was nothing.
"If you can walk away from that," said David Reutimann, McDowell's teammate at Michael Waltrip Racing who was the sixth-fastest qualifier,"“i'’s a pretty good day."