Who’s in the headline – You’d think a Dale Earnhardt Jr. victory at Daytona International Speedway would immediately steal all the headlines. Instead? He’ll have to split them with Austin Dillon this week. Dillon’s flight into the catchfence – seriously, his entire car cleared the wall – will be seen around the world for weeks, months and years to come. Dillon was launched over the rest of the contenders when Denny Hamlin spun into him following the checkered flag.
The entire field wrecked, save for a few cars, but Dillon’s wild ride was chilling, injuring four fans and leaving many wondering what would have happened if the grandstands hadn’t been moved back as part of the new Daytona Rising project. Worse yet, Dillon was hit by Brad Keselowski, who lost control of his car with all of the fluid on-track, when his car fell back to the racing surface upside down. The incident was so frightening that Earnhardt’s pit crew stopped celebrating their win and rushed over to Dillon’s car, on a live track, to make sure he was OK.
A fan in the stands captured this terrifying view of the wreck.
What happened – Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. It rained at Daytona. Qualifying was rained out on Saturday, leaving a couple drivers stuck watching Sunday’s race on TV. The rain came again on Sunday, postponing the race by more than three hours. Pole-sitter Earnhardt led the field to the green flag when it finally fell at 11:42 p.m. ET. Once the race finally started, three contenders established themselves. Earnhardt appeared to have the best car, but Jimmie Johnson and Hamlin were also in the running.
Three hours and many crashes later, the same three drivers found themselves racing for the win in a green-white-checkered finish. Earnhardt ultimately prevailed, fending off both Johnson and Hamlin as they looked to pass him on the outside and inside, respectively. Behind Earnhardt, Kevin Harvick made contact with Hamlin’s left rear, causing the Virginia native to spin in front of the field. What resulted was a 24-car melee and a section of the catchfence completely torn apart.
Why you should care – Daytona and Talladega Superspeedway have been the scenes of many vicious crashes throughout the years, but Monday’s was unique in the fact that Dillon’s car flew head-on into the track’s catchfence, the ultimate test for the only piece of equipment separating spectators from a 3,500-lb missile flying straight at them. Thankfully, it did its job, but in the safety-cautious state the sport is in right now, this story might star for a long time.
What your friends are talking about – That last-lap crash will be the fodder of safety discussions and YouTube crash compilations for years to come. Daytona officials thought that they had done everything right to make Monday morning’s race a safe event. They added over 4,000 yards of SAFER barrier where Kyle Busch suffered his crash in February and laid down asphalt in many areas that were formerly covered by grass. Now, the track could come under the public eye again for the frontstretch catchfence. At this rate, the Daytona 500 might have to be run in some sort of see-through dome.
Sunday’s race had a lot at stake for both NBC and drivers looking to make the Chase. Looking for a solid start to its new TV contract with NASCAR, NBC brought a great TV crew and new excitement to Daytona. However, the rain-delayed race left even the most loyal NASCAR fan looking at their Monday work schedule and going to bed. The few faithful that did stay up to watch the race were left seeing their favorite drivers speak with obvious fear and disgust, hiding behind their sponsor plugs and false smiles after that final-lap wreck.
NASCAR officials and members of the driver’s council met for the second time Saturday at Daytona. Both sides came out of the meeting sounding positive. Drivers such as Earnhardt and Jeff Gordon, who made his final Daytona start this weekend, praised NASCAR and their willingness to listen. Topics that came up included tires, safety, marketing and rules packages for the Chase, all important to the sport going forward. The meeting seems to have gone well, but the third one might come quicker than NASCAR expects following Monday’s race. Can drivers call an emergency gathering?
Martin Truex Jr. complained to his crew chief during a mid-race caution that he couldn’t close up to the rear of the Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolets. He sure wasn’t the only one. Whether the team was just that fast or if they found a secret advantage is unknown, but it sure made for a difficult race for the other 39 drivers in the field at Daytona.
Another week, another light issue. This time, NASCAR officials experienced technical difficulties on a restart. Earnhardt led the field to turn 1 only to see the caution lights running. Many drivers, including Harvick and Clint Bowyer, let off the gas briefly, but NASCAR neglected to throw the caution flag back out, keeping the race green and costing drivers that did the right thing valuable track position as they tried to get back up to speed.
Who is mad – Coming to take the white flag, the answer would’ve been the drivers that were involved in early accidents, such as Truex, Kyle Larson, Carl Edwards and defending winner Aric Almirola. However, following the events of the finish, the honest answer is probably the entire field.
Gordon, Hamlin and even race-winner Earnhardt were all left in shock after the events at the end of the race, trying (and failing) to come up with words to describe what they’d just been through. The entire field was left dumbfounded, angry and confused.
Drivers have long put up with the dangers of restrictor-plate racing, shrugging the risks off and putting on thrilling shows for the fans. However, right now they’d be as likely to strap up and get back on-track at Daytona as Edwards is to miss a sponsor plug.
Who is happy – Dillon is just happy to be alive and in one piece. The driver’s wreck was terrifying, bringing back memories of a similar crash that Dale Earnhardt suffered at Talladega in 1996. That Dillon got out of what was left of his No. 3 Chevrolet with only a bruised tailbone and forearm speaks for the improved safety of the Sprint Cup Series cars.
For some inexplicable reason, Kurt Busch still doesn’t have a restrictor-plate victory. For someone like the elder Busch brother, a former champion who runs well at every racing surface, the stat comes across as an anomaly. That being considered, Busch’s consistent presence up front and fifth-place result offers him some hope for October’s Chase race at Talladega.
Kyle Busch may not be “happy,” but he’s certainly got to be relieved. Returning to the site of his vicious Xfinity Series crash in February, last weekend’s winner looked like he’d killed his Chase hopes early when he got loose and over-corrected straight into the turn 2 outside wall on lap 17. Luckily for “Rowdy,” he was able to take advantage of two free passes and the race’s ridiculous attrition rate, rebounding for a 17th-place finish that’s a lot better than it sounds.
When the checkered flag flew
Earnhardt Jr.’s victory at Daytona is the 25th of his career, coming in his 558th start. The win was Earnhardt’s fourth at Daytona, giving him two victories on the season.
Earnhardt joins Kurt Busch, Harvick and Johnson as multi-time winners in 2015. Johnson still leads the way with four victories.
Matt DiBenedetto was the rookie of the race, coming home in 26th, one spot ahead of Brett Moffitt. However, Moffitt is still the top rookie in points, running 32nd to DiBenedetto’s 36th. Jeb Burton sits 39th in the standings.
Earnhardt’s win is the 11th for Chevrolet in 2015. The bowties hold seven of the top-10 positions in points, and 10 of the 16 provisional Chase positions.
Harvick, Joey Logano, Keselowski, Johnson, Hamlin, Matt Kenseth, Kurt Busch, Earnhardt Jr., Edwards, Truex Jr. and Kyle Busch all have wins in 2015. Kyle Busch is still outside of the top 30 in points, so he will have to race his way into that points position before he’ll be eligible for the Chase. He currently sits 37th in the standings, 128 points behind 30th-place Cole Whitt.
The drivers who are currently eligible for the Chase after 15 races without wins and their standing in points:
10) Jeff Gordon
11) Kasey Kahne
13) Paul Menard
14) Ryan Newman
15) Clint Bowyer
Takin’ it to the Bank
With 17 races in the books, Cup winners this year have pocketed $6,324,965, while the last-place finisher has taken home $1,431,427.
In the Xfinity Series, winners have taken home $1,186,097 with last-place finishers pocketing $221,226 after 14 races.
After nine Truck races the winner has $495,832 while the last loser has banked $92,195.
What is in the cooler – You might want to stay away from the cooler this week; it’s full of negativity. NBC’s choice to delay the Cup race until Sunday night irked fans going into the weekend, but it also trapped the company in a box when rain delayed the event well into the night. Teams couldn’t afford to stay another night and do a 48-hour turnaround to get to Kentucky Speedway for Wednesday’s test session, so instead fans were treated to over three hours of rain-delay coverage, making the race’s primetime slot an over-glorified NASCAR talk show.
NBC’s issues paled in comparison to the events of the race, though. Hoping for a great event, NASCAR was instead treated to another follow-the-leader parade, even if the parade was fighting three-wide. Earnhardt never seemed to be out of control of Monday morning’s race, even with a reported vibration and the strongest competitors in his mirror. While NASCAR could typically spin it into a good story with Earnhardt winning, even he offered little praise for the race following the nearly-tragic last lap. That he and the other drivers stayed composed at all is a testament to how professional and courageous the entire field is. Seriously, watch the crash for yourself, then try to stay positive and plug sponsors:
Typically one of NASCAR’s biggest races, the Coke Zero 400 couldn’t have gone much worse for the organization. Drivers are at their wits’ end after yet-another life-threatening crash and fans, both in the stands and at home, were left holding their hands over their heads in disbelief after a minefield of debris flooded into the lower levels of the bleachers. Even veteran announcer Rick Allen struggled to put a positive spin on the race in the finish’s aftermath. NASCAR needs to make a change, quickly. We’ll give this one two bottles of Coke Zero, since fans needed the caffeine to stay awake until the end.
Where do you point your DVR for next week – The lower-downforce aero package test at Kentucky Speedway will be run under the hidden guise of the Quaker State 400 on Saturday night at 7:30 p.m. ET, assuming there isn’t more rain to help fans burn the midnight oil on back-to-back weeks. The race will be broadcast on NBC. It can also be heard live on MRN affiliate stations and Sirius/XM NASCAR Channel 90.
About the author
A graduate of Ball State, Aaron rejoins Frontstretch for his second season in 2016 following a successful year that included covering seven races and starting the popular "Two-Headed Monster" column in 2015. Now in his third year of covering motorsports, Aaron serves as an Assistant Editor for Frontstretch while also contributing to other popular sites including Speed51 and The Apex. He encourages you to come say hi when you see him at the track.
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