DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Crossing the finish line at Daytona International Speedway at 2:42 a.m. Monday, Dale Earnhardt Jr. hardly felt like celebrating his second Sprint Cup victory of the season.
In his rear-view mirror immediately after taking the checkered flag, he watched Austin Dillon’s No. 3 Chevrolet sail into the catchfence in a violent deceleration that caused an explosion of steel and smoke on the final lap of the rain-delayed Coke Zero 400.
Dillon’s car, whose number was made famous by Earnhardt’s late seven-time champion father (killed in a last-lap wreck of the 2001 Daytona 500), skidded to a stop on its roof. Members from Earnhardt’s No. 88 crew and other teams scrambled to the wreckage to check on the status of the driver while Earnhardt and the rest of the Sprint Cup Series held its collective breath.
“It scared the shit out of me,” Earnhardt said. “I was near tears. I don’t even know who it is, but you just don’t want to see nobody get hurt. It’s awful. It’s an awful feeling.
“I mean, we sit in those (motor home) lots together, we all have become closer friends because of the environment. It ain’t like the old days where you never saw each other, and you come to the track and run over each other and fight and not like each other. We all sort of live in this community, and you may not like everybody, but you damn sure grow to respect them and don’t want to see anybody get hurt.”
After finishing second to his Hendrick Motorsports teammate, Jimmie Johnson expressed shock that Dillon had lived through the crash.
“I’ve never seen anything like that,” Johnson said. “Just a scary, scary moment. I saw it in the mirror, and it hit me hard. I thought something really, really bad happened.”
So had Earnhardt based on the communications with his team.
“Holy shit, that looked awful,” Earnhardt radioed. “Oh my … God. Oh my God. Hope he’s OK. Oh no.”
“He’s alright buddy,” spotter TJ Majors replied. “He’s already out of the car.”
“Everyone in the grandstands OK?” Earnhardt asked.
The news eventually was relayed that drivers seemed unhurt, and there didn’t appear to be major injuries in the grandstands.
“Damn,” Earnhardt radioed quietly.
It was the second time in the past three years that fans were injured after a car went airborne and injured fans during a NASCAR race at Daytona. In the Feb. 23, 2013 season opener of the Xfinity Series, Kyle Larson’s Chevrolet sent debris raining on the grandstands, hurting more than two dozen fans.
Earnhardt also competed in that event, and Dillon’s crash initially seemed even more devastating.
“I’ve never seen a car stop that fast,” he said. “He just had a little contact and took off like an airplane.”
The height of the crash worried Earnhardt the most because of the potential for injuring spectators.
“I didn’t know exactly where he hit the fence as far as how far down the straightaway, so I didn’t know if he was in range of the few seats that we’ve got here tonight,” he said. “But it was just real scary.
“I didn’t care about anything except for just figuring out who was OK … My crew were at the car helping Dillon, and they said that Dillon was good, and then you imagine the news from the grandstands is going to come in a little slower, so you start thinking about that, waiting on that, seeing if everybody is okay there.
“The racing doesn’t matter anymore.”