Dale Earnhardt Jr. was crossing the finish line at Daytona International Speedway early this morning when Austin Dillon’s No. 3 car soared into the air, crashing against a fence and back onto the track.
“Oh My God. That looked awful,” he yelled into his radio, the Associated Press reported. The victor then swore repeatedly as he watched the sight unfold, unsure who’d crashed or if they’d survived.
The last lap crash injured 13 fans, four of whom required treatment. Dillon suffered only minor injuries, and the other drivers caught up in the terrifying crash walked away without a scratch.
In a race marred with rain delays and a late start — ending in the wee hours of the morning well past 2 a.m. — Earnhardt Jr. led the pack for most of the race. But as his competitors followed behind, a bit of contact between those trailing behind sent Austin shooting upward.
No. 3 soared upside down as it jumped off the track and crashed into the catchfence; debris sprayed the grandstand, the Washington Post added. When Austin came back to Earth, it was torn in half and the engine had been ripped from the hood. Smoke coated the track, and flames curled out from several other vehicles, ABC News added.
Fan Rich Schellhase watched the entire crash unfold and was terrified.
“The catch-fence was … gone, it was just this huge hole, and I’ve seen, you know, cars hit it before and I’ve never seen anything like that That scared the hell out of me, I’ll be honest with you. I saw the whole thing happen.”
Dale watched as crew members raced to Austin Dillon’s car, screaming orders that he stay put inside the vehicle. The victor was terrified by the sight.
“You are … on the verge of tears. I saw everything in the mirror pretty clearly… I was very scared for whoever that car was. I didn’t care about anything except figuring out who was OK. The racing doesn’t matter anymore. That was … terrifying to watch… A wreck like that has a high potential for someone to get injured and you saw the car get high and into the fence and you … worry about everyone else in the grandstands and just don’t want to see that happen.”
Dillon and Earnhardt Jr. and their families have been close all their lives. Dale Sr. was killed in a crash at Daytona in 2001, during the final lap. The stretch of track where Dillon’s crash took place had been renovated recently. The grandstand was moved back, farther than other sections, meaning spectators were kept safe from the majority of the crash debris.
Everyone, Austin and the other drivers included, were lucky this time.
“I am … going to be really sore. It got my tailbone pretty good and my arm. Should be fine, just go ice it up and get ready for Kentucky. But just thank the good Lord for taking care of me and for what NASCAR has done to make the sport this much safer. I … hope everybody in the stands is all right. That is the next biggest concern. Just praying for everybody and glad the good Lord looked out for me tonight.”
“I’m shocked that Austin Dillon is even alive,” said fellow driver Jimmie Johnson. “I expected the worst when I came back around.”
Joie Chitwood III, president at Daytona, said the crash will serve as a lesson to track engineers so the raceway can be made safer for future races.
[Photo Courtesy Patrick Smith / Getty Images]