Speedweeks at Daytona International Speedway (DIS) is a lot like a traveling carnival in that you love it when it is in town but you are not really sure what you saw once the last truck — or in this case the last hauler — has pulled out onto I-95 heading north. The 10 days that NASCAR called DIS home with its three major series provided plenty of close racing, but it was the horrific ending to Saturday’s Nationwide race that took the place of last year’s jet dryer fire as the lead story.
Saturday’s race was a traditional Daytona restrictor plate race as it was all going to come down to the last couple of laps, or in the case the last lap. Regan Smith was leading the field back to the line to take the checkers when secondplace driver Brad Keselowski decide to make his move. Smith decided that a win at the most famous track in all of NASCAR was worth trying to throw a block. His attempted block created a 12-car wreck that saw Kyle Larson’s car go airborne into the catch fence.
The catch fence did its job of keeping the car from getting into the fans, but a large amount of debris as well as one of the tires ended up in the grandstands. The force of the car hitting the fence was so strong that the car’s engine ended up lying on the grandstand side of the fence. A total of 28 people required medical attention. Fourteen were transported to area hospitals and the remaining 14 received treatment at the medical facilities at the track.
Once all of the injured had been cared for, the Speedway’s track crew immediately went to work repairing the fence and getting the track ready to race on Sunday. By the time the sun came up on Sunday, DIS was ready for the first-ever points race using the Gen-6 car.
The track and the sport will come under fire in the days to come over the incident and the danger to which the fans were subjected, but the fence did what it was intended and that was to keep the car from going into the stands. NASCAR will take the car and the fence portions that were involved back to its Research and Development Department in Charlotte and study what happened and then will make any necessary changes as the season goes forward.
The crash did put a cloud over Sunday morning’s activities around the track leading up to the start of the 500, but once the green flag waved for Danica Patrick to lead the field to the start of the sport’s biggest race, it was racing as usual. This was a race that was full of unknowns because the Budweiser Duel races on Thursday didn’t really prove that the field had figured out how to draft with the new car or when to make a move at the end of the race.
The race started with everyone content to run double file, but as it seems to always happen, Kasey Kahne got loose (not sure if he had help or not) and started one of the track’s famous multi-car crashes. When the smoke finally cleared, two of the favorites, Kevin Harvick and Tony Stewart, were left with damaged cars.
Much of the race was cautionfree which put a premium on quick pit stops as track position became more and more important, but the most important calls of the day came after a caution when the lead driver got to pick his lane for the restart. All week, it the outside lane was the choice on the restart and at the end of the race it proved to be the difference. Jimmy Johnson was just inches ahead of Brad Keselowski when the final caution came out and it was that lane choice to restart the race that had a huge outcome on the finish of the race.
Johnson went on to become the first winner in a Gen-6 car as he crossed the finish line ahead of teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr., who finished second. It’s only one race and it pays the same number of points that the drivers will be awarded this coming weekend at Phoenix. The Gen-6 gets somewhat of a new look this week as the car will have a bigger spoiler at the non-restrictor plate tracks. The spoiler will be almost double in size and is expected to create so much downforce that every time drivers go out to qualify on Friday they should beat the old track record. It should be that way at every stop on the schedule as this is going to be one fast racecar!
Event: Subway Fresh Fit 500 (k)
Track: Phoenix International
Raceway (1-mile tri-oval, 11 degrees of banking in 1&2, 9 degrees
in turns 3&4)
Date: March 2, 3 p.m.
Defending Champion: Denny