'Terrifying' Last-Lap Wreck Gives Perspective to Dale Earnhardt Jr's Daytona Win

Monte Dutton@@monteduttonFeatured ColumnistJuly 6, 2015

Austin Dillon's Chevrolet takes flight.
Austin Dillon's Chevrolet takes flight.Terry Renna/Associated Press

Dale Earnhardt Jr. was masterful, leading 96 of 161 laps to win the rain-delayed Coke Zero 400 at just shy of 3 a.m. ET on Monday, and the 25th Sprint Cup victory of Earnhardt’s career left him “on the verge of tears,” he said in the winner’s media conference.

They weren’t tears of joy. They were tears of fright.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. also won at Talladega on May 3.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. also won at Talladega on May 3.John Raoux/Associated Press

Earnhardt, who has won consecutive races at NASCAR’s “plate tracks,” expertly defended his advantage against Hendrick Motorsports teammate and six-time champion Jimmie Johnson, but the lingering memory of the Daytona International Speedway summertime classic won’t be the victory by the sport’s most popular driver.

It won’t be the rain that delayed the start to 11:42 p.m. EDT.

It will be the spectacle of a mammoth crash, the race’s fourth so-called Big One, that occurred after Earnhardt had already crossed the finish line. The desperate drivers trying in vain to catch Earnhardt and pass others became gruesomely entangled, and one car, driven by Austin Dillon, took flight and soared into the track’s sturdy catch fence at a blunt angle.

Earnhardt watched it all from a safe distance because he had already won the race and was peering at the nightmarish gaggle behind him through his rearview mirror.     

“It was real frightening ... Because, I think, the first thing that goes through your mind is, I saw everything in the mirror pretty clearly, and that car [Austin Dillon’s] went up in the air pretty high,” he said.

Comparing Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s 2015 Victories to Date
TrackStartedLaps LedEarnings
Talladega467$311,665
Daytona (2)196$308,040
racing-reference.info

“I could just see that it was a black object that hit the fence, and so, I’m assuming I’m looking at the undercarriage of the car. I’ve never seen, I’ve never really seen a roll cage handle those catch fences very well, and I was just very scared for whoever that was. I didn’t even know what car it was, so I was just very scared for that person.”

Austin Dillon let the fans know he was OK.
Austin Dillon let the fans know he was OK.David Graham/Associated Press

The fence kept Dillon’s car out of the grandstands but shredded from the force of the impact. Dillon’s Chevrolet came to a stop with little intact except the cocoon that protected him and enabled him to walk away. The engine separated from the rest of the car and came to rest at the edge of the track.

A hail of debris cascaded into the grandstands, injuring 13 but, reportedly, none seriously.

Dillon finished seventh the hard way. Miraculously, he climbed out of the hulk and even waved to the fans to let them know he was all right.

“You know, the 11 [Denny Hamlin] got turned by the 4 [Kevin Harvick] across the start/finish line, and I thought the race was going to be over right there,” Dillon said. “We were almost there, and I was just pushing the 24 [Jeff Gordon], and the next thing I knew, I was looking at my roof for a long time.

“I thought it was all over when I was sliding there, and the 2 [Brad Keselowski] came in and really got me, so it was a wicked ride, but thank the good Lord above for taking care of me.”

Everyone let out a deep breath, and everyone still had one.

No one disputed the basic details of the conflagration.

“The 4 was pushing me, or trying to push me to the line, and he had just jacked me up,” Hamlin said. “We crossed the line, I thought, or we were close. He [Harvick] was trying to help, but it just wrecked a bunch of stuff. None of us was going to win the race.

“We [the top five finishers] all have wins [meaning they have qualified for the title-determining Chase], so at some point, you have to hit the ‘concede button.’ Austin took one heck of a ride.”

“I caught the No. 11 (Hamlin) there, and he had a big piece of damage on the left-rear, but at that point, you couldn’t run off and I finally just snagged him and turned him as he was in the middle of the track,” Harvick said. “I hate that all happened, but just, at the end of the race, it becomes pretty aggressive.”

Most everyone, with the possible exception of Kurt Busch, admitted to being scared.

Busch said, via a Chevrolet transcript, “Yeah, it would be cool what we could do [with] unrestricted [engines]. Let’s go 230 mph. I guarantee we will all be spread out and put on a good show still.”

Too good, in the estimation of many.

Jeff Gordon has tough love for Daytona.
Jeff Gordon has tough love for Daytona.John Raoux/Associated Press

“It’s really like a video game,” sixth-place Jeff Gordon said, “except for it’s real life. It’s crazy. It’s really crazy. I love Daytona. This place has been amazing for me. I can’t believe this is my final race here, but after going through that experience, I’m glad I only have one restrictor-plate race left.”

Gordon, the four-time champion, is retiring at the end of the season and will watch the next race at Daytona from the safety of a Fox broadcast booth.

The term “witching hour” refers to the time of night when creatures such as witches, demons and ghosts appear. A race that started 18 minutes before midnight completed less than four laps before a nine-car melee. Seven cars crashed on Lap 86 and 11 on Lap 105. NASCAR’s report didn’t list the total of the final crash because it occurred after the race’s conclusion and didn’t bring out a caution flag.

Or perhaps it was because so many of the cars were in several pieces.

Landon Cassill said, “You can’t just drive over the left-rear of people. They wreck every time.”

Brian Scott, who had also crashed in Saturday night’s Xfinity Series race, said simply, “Daytona happened.”

Dillon said, “It’s wreckers or checkers. It’s like Talladega Nights out there.”

Carl Edwards, after being involved in two of the huge crashes, quipped that Scott “was real curious about the underside of the car,” his Toyota, which wound up riding atop the hood of Scott’s Chevrolet.

The humor was of the nervous variety, the kind that occurs in the aftermath of danger.

At the end, the fence didn’t hold in the sense of remaining intact, but it held in the sense of its purpose, which is to keep bulky race cars out of the way of the most awful harm, that being to the fans crowded behind them.

“Yeah, the fence and the cable,” said runner-up Johnson, “it’s like a great cheese grater to a race car and just tears it apart, and unfortunately, all the energy with the turn on the front stretch [the “tri-oval”] as the car comes apart, the energy is carrying the debris out into the grandstands, and that’s a scary thing.

“I don’t know. I’m definitely open-minded to [changes] and hope that we can engineer something, but I don’t know how you keep a 3,500-pound car at 200 miles an hour staying in the race track like that. The fence held up. It did function well, but the debris going off into the stands is something I don’t know how you can control.

Second-place finisher Jimmie Johnson likened the fence to "a cheese grater."
Second-place finisher Jimmie Johnson likened the fence to "a cheese grater."Jerry Markland/Getty Images

“Keep the cars on the ground. Slow us down would be the only way to do it, I would say, and even then, there are no guarantees. It would help, but no guarantees.”

Usable metal was in short supply as the transporters headed back up I-95 en route to the teams’ shops and then to testing scheduled before next week’s race in Kentucky. All but seven cars were listed as “running,” but most were either patched up or destroyed.

Daytona 500 winner Joey Logano was in the very first Big One, yet he wound up being credited with 22nd place.

“There isn’t much good to say about what happened here tonight,” he said. “It is a product of the racing here.”

Referring to the end, Logano added, “That isn’t the first time that has happened here, and it is just dumb that we allow it to happen more than once.”

All quotes are taken from NASCAR media, team and manufacturer sources unless otherwise noted.

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