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 following 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 — from the "Today" show to "Inside Edition" on Monday before boarding a plane for California to shoot "The Ellen DeGeneres Show" — he's used every opportunity to tout NASCAR's safety measures.
"That was obviously a very serious wreck. That first initial impact straight into the wall was pretty severe," the 23-year-old said. "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."
But there was no gloating among NASCAR's top officials, who have taken heavy heat in the seven years since Earnhardt was killed. Often criticized for being too slow in developing safety measures, the sanctioning body has been deliberate in its improvements.
It took years for NASCAR 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.
But as the heap of twisted metal that was once McDowell's intact No. 00 Toyota was towed back to the garage, not a single person could say the car wasn't indeed safer.
Still, NASCAR isn't satisfied.
"It's a sign of complacency to say 'We've made it.' Not when we're talking about safety," said Robin Pemberton, NASCAR's vice president of competition. "That crash was a verification that the progress we've made is working. But we're never done, we'll never stop trying to make improvements.
"We've made a lot of gains in the past 10 years, and we've got a lot more gains to make."
So the car now heads back to NASCAR's R&D Center in Concord, where officials will take a close look of what's left of the Camry. They'll look for what parts shifted and the integrity of the cockpit. They'll comb over every broken part and try to determine what, if anything, can be improved.
Even to the naked eye, those who looked over the wreckage found things that could be bolstered.
"Like everybody said, that's a testament to the safety equipment," Sunday's race-winner Carl Edwards said. "I still think, like always, there are things that we can do to be better. The number one thing will be to look at the car.
"I got to look at it really closely, and I think there are parts of that roll cage that we can beef up more and do a better job with."
But what saved McDowell goes beyond NASCAR's new car.
Credit must be given to new seat designs, the mandatory use of a head and neck restraint and the SAFER (Steel and Foam Energy Reduction) barriers that have been installed in walls at every track that NASCAR's top series visit.
It was the combination of all of those measures that allowed McDowell to walk away virtually unscathed.
"Not any one single person can take credit for the positive outcome this crash produced," Pemberton said. "This is the work of thousands of people, a ton of different teams and groups. It's just the prime example of a give and take situation with everyone working to better our sport."
And yet there's still work to be done, evidenced by Jeff Gordon's hard hit last month on an inside retaining wall at Las Vegas Motor Speedway that didn't have the SAFER barrier. It led his car owner, Rick Hendrick, to forcefully call for the interior walls to be fixed before the series returns to the track, and many other drivers have since echoed his demand — but for all tracks that lack the barriers in areas exposed to potential accidents.
Others have called for Pocono Raceway to remove the grassy area along the backstretch and install the barriers where the guard rails are exposed.
"It's not our responsibility to change it. It's our responsibility to bring it up as drivers to make it known," Ryan Newman said. "The biggest thing is for us to be proactive rather than reactive in situation like this. As drivers, we get called 'whiners' or 'complainers.' The bottom line is, NASCAR and whoever engineer-wise or safety team-wise needs to address every issue and every probability of an issue that we go to."