TALLADEGA, Ala. -- Carl Edwards began his charge to the front with nine laps to go at Talladega Superspeedway. He never expected to end up airborne, upside down, sheet metal spewing behind him as his car sailed into the safety fence.
The fence bowed, but held, and Edwards returned safely to the racing surface -- another "Big One" to thrill the fans.
Only this time, seven people were hurt and one of the lasting images of Sunday's race will be the pink-clad woman strapped to a stretcher, her head in a brace as she was airlifted to a hospital after debris from Edwards' last-lap crash with winner Brad Keselowski sailed into the grandstands.
Edwards, who climbed from the fiery wreckage and crossed the finish line on foot, was thankful it wasn't worse.
"I'm glad the car didn't go up in the grandstands," he said. "I saw some fencing at one point and that made me a little bit nervous. I don't know if I could live with myself if I ended up in the grandstands."
Officials said seven fans sustained non-life-threatening injuries, and an eighth fan seated in the same section of the grandstand had an undisclosed medical issue.
Dr. Bobby Lewis, Talladega's onsite physician, said two people in the crowd were airlifted from the track to avoid the heavy traffic. One woman had a possible broken jaw.
"We'll race like this until we kill somebody," Edwards said, "then [NASCAR] will change it."
The dangerous but dramatic restrictor-plate racing came under fire after Edwards' attempt to block Keselowski's winning pass triggered the last of several frightening accidents at one of the sport's most exciting tracks.
Keselowski pushed Edwards past Ryan Newman and Dale Earnhardt Jr. into the lead on the final lap, and the 25-year-old Earnhardt protege peeked around Edwards as they closed on the finish line. Edwards ducked low to block the pass, but Keselowski was too close and couldn't avoid contact that sent Edwards into a spin up the track and into Newman's path.
Edwards' car flew over the top of Newman's hood, then shot into the frontstretch fence.
NASCAR spokesman Jim Hunter said the sanctioning body will analyze the accident, as well as the safety fence, to determine if anything can be improved.
"If there were something that we felt we could do today to make it safer, it would be done," Hunter said. "This is a fast race track. It's wide. I saw guys racing five-abreast today, which I have never seen. We know the cars are safer than they've ever been."
Restrictor plates are used at Daytona and Talladega to combat the high speeds at NASCAR's two fastest tracks. The plates typically keep the field bunched tightly together, and one wrong move by a driver can cause a massive accident.
There were three bad ones Sunday: a 13-car accident on Lap 7, a 10-car accident with nine laps to go, and Edwards' flight to the finish. A day earlier, Matt Kenseth was uninjured in a fiery roll during the Nationwide Series race.
"Talladega is short for 'We're going to crash, we just don't know when,'" said Newman, the third-place finisher. "We saw [an airborne car] two times this weekend, so maybe we need to look at things that keep the car down on the ground."
Earnhardt Jr., a five-time Talladega winner and seven-time winner of restrictor-plate races, finished second but echoed concerns about the racing style. Drivers dread it because so much is out of their control, but Earnhardt said it's loved by fans because of the danger.
"For years, we've had wrecks like this every time we've come to Talladega. Ever since the plate got here. And for years it was celebrated," he said. "The media celebrated it, the networks celebrated it, calling it 'The Big One,' just trying to attract attention.
"So there's a responsibility with the media and the networks and the sanctioning body itself to come to their senses a little bit."
None of the drivers involved in any of the accidents was injured.