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Daytona finishes upgrading energy-absorbing barriers around track

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- When drivers race at Daytona International Speedway over the next few weeks, they'll notice that all outside and inside walls on the track's 2½-mile tri-oval, with the exception of pit lane, will have energy-absorbing barriers.

It was nearly a year ago when Kyle Busch slammed into an unprotected concrete wall on the inside going toward Turn 1, breaking his right leg and left foot. Busch didn't race again for nearly three months after the Feb. 21 accident but rallied to win the 2015 Sprint Cup title.

In reaction to that accident, DIS President Joie Chitwood pledged that night to have all walls covered by SAFER (steel-and-foam energy reduction) Barrier as soon as possible. When NASCAR teams returned in July, there were still some non-covered walls on the insides of the turns and the backstretch.

"We've lived up to the commitment that we made and are excited that we got that done," Chitwood said Wednesday at the track. "There were some areas that we had to update [since July]."

DIS officials had been criticized for being slow to add more SAFER Barrier while spending $400 million on a new project to turn its grandstands into a modern stadium. Lesa France Kennedy, CEO of DIS parent company International Speedway Corp., said ISC tracks have added 54,000 linear feet of SAFER Barrier in the past year. ISC operates 12 of the 23 tracks where the Sprint Cup Series races.

"We're always going to continue to look with NASCAR and [consultant] University of Nebraska at other improvements down the road," she said last week.

Virtually all tracks have added more SAFER Barrier in the past year, an issue brought to the forefront by Busch's injury as well as NASCAR's newly formed Sprint Cup drivers council.

"NASCAR has assured us that they have a well thought out plan when it comes to SAFER Barriers," said Denny Hamlin, Busch's Joe Gibbs Racing teammate. "I know that they're putting tens of millions of dollars into SAFER Barriers over the next 20 months or so.

"Most of that has been completed, about 60 to 70 percent of the work has already been done, and so there's just a few places left at some of these race tracks that isn't covered. But they all have a plan to get covered, so it's not falling on deaf ears by any means, and I feel like part of the Council has helped us get this done."

Because the tracks are the ones that pay and install the SAFER Barrier, NASCAR won't detail its plan, or even acknowledge it has a specific plan. The NASCAR sanction agreements with the tracks traditionally have a clause that mandates the tracks must implement any improvements to the facility dictated by NASCAR.

"What we've said is that they're going to be wherever they need to be, and our tracks have said, 'That's right,'" said Lesa's brother, Brian, who is NASCAR's chairman and CEO. "They totally agree.

"They have met on various occasions with us, with themselves, and ... they're well into installing walls."