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NASCAR wasn’t far removed from a series of racing tragedies that included the deaths of Dale Earnhardt and Adam Petty when Mike Harmon took to the Bristol Motor Speedway track in August 2002.

What should have been some routine practice laps turned into a near-death experience not once but twice for Harmon. Even considering the safety features built into Xfinity Series cars, the fact that Harmon walked away from the carnage literally just moments later almost defies explanation.

Michael Waltrip set the standard for bad Bristol wrecks

Michael Waltrip lived through a horrendous wreck at Bristol Motor Speedway in 1990. Twelve years later, he watched Mike Harmon’s near-catastrophe in disbelief because of the similarities between the two incidents.

“It was weird for me to be standing there looking at it,” Waltrip told ESPN. “His engine was on one part of the track, his steering column was somewhere else. It reminded me exactly of my accident. We’re just thankful that Mike Harmon is still wandering around and he and I can laugh about it now.”

Other than the fact that Waltrip’s wreck occurred during a race, the circumstances were similar, and the incidents rate among the first crashes fans mention when discussing bad wrecks.

Coming off Turn 2 in the high groove, Waltrip’s Pontiac caught a bump from Robert Pressley’s Oldsmobile on Lap 170. Had that only propelled Waltrip into the outside wall, it would have been a hard hit but nothing dangerous. Instead, Waltrip’s point of contact was a rail at a track crossing gate.

The rail gave way, and Waltrip’s car continued on into a concrete abutment, shearing it in half.

“It just blew up. There’s no other way to describe it,” he said. “People in the stands, my friends down on pit road, they just thought they saw Michael Waltrip get killed. There was no way anybody could survive a crash that looked like that.”

It took emergency workers a few minutes to peel away sheet metal and help the driver out of the car, but Waltrip walked to a cart that took him to the infield care center. He was examined and released a short time later.

Mike Harmon’s car suffered a similar fate in 2002

Mike Harmon was practicing for an Xfinity Series race when he lost control on the high groove and plowed into the crossing gate. The momentum carried his car into the same abutment Michael Waltrip hit.

Bristol Motor Speedways made improvements to that part of the outer wall after Waltrip’s accident, reinforcing the gate with heavy metal posts. But not all the posts were in place for practice, so the No. 44 Chevy experienced the same fate. One of two key differences between the wrecks was a contributing factor: Harmon’s car took a sharper angle into the barrier.

Had he struck the gate at the same angle as Waltrip, Harmon might have avoided the worst of the abutment’s effect. But the combination of the angle and speed set the car up for the same result NASCAR fans saw 12 years earlier.

“All that saved my life was that it went on the right side of the engine instead of the left side of the engine,” Harmon recalled.

Regardless, the impact carved up the car, though the roll bars kept the driver’s body from a surely fatal blow from the wall.

That good fortune lasted less than a second.

Mike Harmon absorbed a second big hit immediately afterward

Mike Harmon poses for a photo at Daytona International Speedway on Feb. 13, 2020. | Chris Graythen/Getty Images
Mike Harmon poses for a photo at Daytona International Speedway on Feb. 13, 2020. | Chris Graythen/Getty Images

The second difference between the crashes of Michael Waltrip in 1990 and Mike Harmon in 2002 came in the immediate aftermath. Waltrip’s incident happened in a race, and the cars trailing him managed to steer clear.

Unfortunately for Harmon, Johnny Sauter’s No. 2 Chevy was less than a football field behind. When the bulk of Harmon’s Chevy landed near the middle of the track, Sauter could neither slow down nor go around.  He delivered a hard blow to the little that remained of the rear of the car, sending it spinning.

Had Sauter made contact three feet to the right, it’s questionable as to whether the safety measures could have kept Harmon safely cocooned.

After the second impact, Sauter’s car rolled to the retaining wall protecting the pit lane and began smoldering. Pit crews scurried toward both men, reaching Sauter first. When they arrived to assist Harmon just seconds later, he was already extracting himself from what remained of the car. Crew members grabbed him and began walking Harmon toward the pit wall as an ambulance rolled up.

A footnote: Using a backup car, Harmon returned to the track to compete in the MBNA All-American Heroes 200 that weekend. Handling problems ended his day on Lap 16, and he finished 40th.

Got a question or observation about racing? Sportscasting’s John Moriello does a mailbag column each Friday. Write to him at [email protected].