DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Riding bumper-to-bumper at nearly 200 miles per hour, Austin Dillon was smack in the middle of a pack of cars headed to the checkered flag when he was suddenly sent on the ride of his life.
A wreck that began three rows ahead of him sent cars spinning all over the track. When one turned into him, the force of the hit flipped his car up and over two others. Dillon sailed nearly upside down into the Daytona International Speedway catchfence with such a hard hit that it nearly brought his 3,500-pound car to a sudden stop.
The fence acted like a slingshot, sending the sheared car back onto the track, where it landed on its roof and was hit again while the engine block smoldered nearby. Left behind were a handful of fans who received only minor injuries from the debris, and a gaping hole in the fence, the mesh torn away.
And Dillon? Nearly everyone feared the worst. Instead, he was helped out by rival crews and gave the “I’m OK” two-handed wave used by late bullrider Frost Lane to the stunned crowd.
“It happened so quick,” said Dillon, the grandson of car owner Richard Childress and the first driver entrusted to drive the famed No. 3 that had been out of use since Dale Earnhardt’s fatal 2001 crash at Daytona.
“You’re just holding on and praying that you get through it, get to race again,” he said. “I had just got done stopping and I had crew members everywhere. I thought that was really special and cool. It comforted me pretty quick. And then I just wanted to get out of there and let the fans know that I was OK, let my parents and grandparents know that I was all right.”
Dale Earnhardt Jr. was near tears as he pulled into Victory Lane at nearly 3 a.m. Monday after watching the last-lap wreck in his rearview mirror. Runner-up Jimmie Johnson said Dillon was lucky to be alive.
That Dillon walked away with only a sore arm and tailbone, and only five fans suffered minor injuries, was a testament to NASCAR’s evolving safety improvements. Although Kyle Larson walked away from a similar accident in a 2013 race at Daytona, his car hit the fence wheels-first instead of roof-first as Dillon’s did. The fence also was shredded, and the debris field injured 28 fans.
Daytona has since reinforced its fencing, and part of the track’s ongoing $400 million renovation project has moved seating back a bit.
Six-time NASCAR champion Johnson marveled at the lack of injuries but had no solution for preventing similar incidents. “I don’t know how you keep a 3,500-pound car at 200 mph staying in the racetrack,” he said.
Dillon, though, said NASCAR must figure out a solution.
“I think our speeds are too high, I really do,” he said. “I think everybody can get good racing with lower speeds, and we can work on that and then figure out a way to keep cars on the ground.”