DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. - NASCAR has spent months touting its redesigned 2013 Sprint Cup car as its best model yet for keeping drivers safe.
Starting with Sunday's Daytona 500, the sanctioning body will face questions about whether its catchfences are up to par in protecting fans from danger.
When Kyle Larson's Chevrolet sailed into the frontstretch barrier at Daytona International Speedway and scattered debris that injured 28 fans, it marked the second time in less than a year that fans were hurt at a NASCAR event.
After a Sprint Cup race was cut short by a thunderstorm at Pocono Raceway last year, a fan was killed by a lightning strike, and nine more were injured. That raised questions about whether NASCAR should have stopped the race for fan safety.
On the eve of NASCAR's crown jewel, the Daytona 500, Saturday's incident raised the specter of the worst disaster in auto racing history.
At the 1955 24 Hours of Le Mans, 83 fans and a driver were killed and 120 injured when Pierre Levegh's Mercedes collided with a car, sailed into a dirt embankment and launched into the crowd.
Saturday's crash was the worst involving fan injuries in U.S. auto racing since three fans were killed by a tire and suspension debris in the 1999 IndyCar race at Charlotte Motor Speedway. A year earlier, three fans were killed in a CART race when a crash sent a tire and debris into stands at Michigan International Raceway.
Fencing technology has become a controversy in the Izod IndyCar Series since Dan Wheldon was killed in October 2011. Wheldon died when his head struck a fence post at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, where the poles are positioned on the inside of the fence meshing.
Many IndyCar drivers have lobbied for tracks to move poles outside the fence, but many have suggested the entire catchfence concept needs an overhaul.
Tony George, formerly the head of IndyCar and Indianapolis Motor Speedway, commissioned the development of the SAFER (Steel and Foam Energy Reduction) barrier a decade ago and said "it was always our plan (that) the next thing was to address the fence.
"Mostly I think we need to be focused on redirecting the cars back onto the race surface and not allow them to get hung up (and) entangled in the fence," George said last year. "We've got to come up with something that's elegant enough and allows some protection for the drivers as well as the fan."
George has described a system similar to the mesh netting that keeps stray pucks out of the crowd at hockey games, but perhaps as a plexiglass-style "curtain" that won't obstruct grandstand sightlines.
After Saturday's crash, four-time IndyCar champion and three-time Indy 500 winner Dario Franchitti tweeted, "it's time @indycar @nascar other sanctioning bodies & promoters work on an alternative to catch fencing. There has to be a better solution."
The fence was a hot topic in NASCAR after the April 2009 race at Talladega Superspeedway. Eight fans were injured when Carl Edwards' Ford flew into the catchfence after being bumped by race winner Brad Keselowski. Seven fans sustained minor injuries in the incident, and Blake Bobbitt, 17, was airlifted to a hospital with a broken jaw after being struck by debris.
Restrictor plates have been used to reduce speeds at Daytona and Talladega since 1988, shortly after Bobby Allison's car tore off a section of the fence in a crash at Talladega. Drivers have complained the rules create treacherous conditions at the tracks as cars running similar speeds often clump into large packs.
After the crash, a shaken Edwards said, "NASCAR just puts us in this box, and we'll race like this until we kill somebody, and then they'll change it. I'm glad the car didn't go up in the grandstands. I don't know if I could live with myself if I ended up in the grandstands."
Many drivers seemed to be contemplating the same dire scenarios after Saturday's crash.
In a Twitter post, A.J. Allmendinger wrote, "As drivers we know the risks and danger of driving a racecar. Its part of the job. The fans should not have to take the same risks as us..."