Nasty wreck mars Nationwide finish

Ralph N. Paulk
| Saturday, Feb. 23, 2013, 5:09 p.m.

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – In a horrifying last-lap crash involving 12 cars on Saturday, NASCAR officials confirmed that 28 spectators were injured from the debris of rookie Kyle Larson's splintered car that catapulted into the catch fence at Daytona International Speedway.

Track president Joie Chitwood said 14 spectators were transported to hospitals in the Daytona Beach area, and 14 were treated at the trackside care center along with several drivers.

“We responded appropriately accordance to our safety protocol ... and transferred those fans who needed critical assistance.” Chitwood said. “We are in the process of preparing the facility, and we'll be ready to go racing (on Sunday).”

Chitwood said the section in the grandstand where the accident occurred will be not be closed. However, he acknowledged there isn't time to replace the cross-over gate that was damaged by Larson's car.

Chitwood and NASCAR's vice president of racing operations, Steve O'Donnell, said the catch fence will be repaired in time for the scheduled 1 p.m. start of the 55th Daytona 500.

“As with any of these incidents, we have a thorough review to see what we can apply in the future,” O'Donnell said. “Our initial evaluation is still ongoing. We expect to go racing with no changes.”

The crash-marred race, won by Tony Stewart, again exposed the ever-present dangers of a sport in which both drivers and spectators are sometimes at risk with speeds exceeding 210 mph on the crowded 2 12-mile tri-oval.

Regan Smith and Brad Keselowski were battling for position as they came out of Turn 4 and steered toward the green-white checkered flag down the front straightaway. With Stewart shadowing the yellow line near the apron, Smith and Keselowski were engaged at the top of the racetrack.

Smith didn't concede an inch. Then, he lost control of his car as Larson made a move toward the middle of the racetrack. Larson was reeled into the melee that sent his car hurling backwards into the catch fence where the engine dislodged and a front tire tumbled into the grandstand just shy of the start-finish line.

Smith was hardly apologetic immediately after the race.

“I tried to throw a block on Brad (Keselowski),” Smith said. “We both tried to win the race, that's all. When you're coming to the checkered at Daytona, you try to win. I wasn't willing to concede second place. I'll do it again tomorrow (in the Daytona 500) with a chance to win.”

Keselowski said he understood the tactic, but added Smith's move caused unnecessary chaos at the end.

“We made a move to try to win the race,” Keselowski said. “We were in the catbird seat. Regan was in a good spot. ... We were pushing. I kind of had the run and the move to win the race.”

Larson, driving for Fox Chapel native Chip Ganassi and Turner Motorsports, walked away unscathed from a car sheared in half. But the scattered debris and wayward tires inflicted injuries to spectators seated nearly a dozen rows up from track surface.

“Honestly, the race itself pales in comparison to the injuries sustained by the fans,” Ganassi said. “Our thoughts and prayers go out to all the fans that were injured as a result of the crash. As for Kyle, I am very happy that he is okay.”

Remarkably, Larson was treated and released from the infield care center with only minor injuries.

“I feel good, but I'm not sure how things ended,” said Larson, who finished 13th. “I took a couple of big hits, then looked up and the engine was gone.”

Stewart said it appeared that it was difficult for the lead pack to avoid the second multi-car crash of the race. Michael Annett suffered a bruised chest in a 13-car crash on Lap 117 to red flag the race for nearly 20 minutes.

Stewart didn't like what he saw as he looked into his rearview mirror while taking the checkered flag ahead of Sam Hornish Jr. and Alex Bowman.

“We've always known since racing was started this is a dangerous sport,” Stewart said. “We assume that risk. It's hard when the fans get caught up in it. When you get the green-white checkered flag like that, even if a hole is closing up, the guy behind you isn't going to check up, and you're not going to check up. You've got to take that chance. I could see in all in the mirror, and it didn't look good from where I was, either.”

NASCAR president Mike Helton said the racetrack safety features, especially the catch fence, may have saved lives.

“There are moments that occur that we've just never seen before and can't really plan for, although everybody's effort is directed that way to make it as safe as possible for both competitors and for the fans,” Helton said.

Daytona 500 pole sitter Danica Patrick's No. 10 Chevrolet lost power early in the race. She looked perplexed as a team engineers conceded the engine was too far gone to revive it. Still, she encouraged them to get her back on the racetrack if only for the seat time to prepare for Sunday's main event.

Finally, she conceded — albeit hesitantly as the echo of a roaring engines signaled she had no chance to make up the laps lost.

As Patrick picked up the pieces, there were too many scattered parts and pieces to count after a 13-car crash. The accident, which took out two Daytona 500 favorites — Kasey Kahne and defending champion Matt Kenseth — was red-flagged for nearly 20 minutes.

Patrick worked her No. 34 Turner Motorsports car around the racetrack only 31 times during the 120-lap race. But she led for five, a confidence booster on the eve of the Sprint Cup opener.

“There was a sense of relief that I was able to do what I wanted and go where I wanted out there,” said Patrick, who opted to start on the outside of Row 1 for the 500 after skipping Saturday's final practice session. “If I wanted to make it three-wide, it was encouraged. It's nowhere I've been at all this year.”

The Nationwide race may not be an indicator of what to expect during the 500. But a series of blown Hendrick engines left some drivers concerned about how they'll hold up over 200 laps.

Patrick, pole-sitter Trevor Bayne and Kyle Busch all experienced some engine trouble.

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