Wreck on final lap sends rookie airborne, allows Tony Stewart to sneak to victory
RELATED: Stewart wins race
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Kyle Larson remembers hearing the sound of metal crunching, and smelling oil. He remembers feeling his car go airborne, being hit a few times, and seeing the ground as his vehicle pirouetted on its nose. He remembers being unsure of whether he had caught the catchfence, but fairly certain his engine was no longer attached to his No. 32 car.
When it was all over, Larson walked away from a vehicle that had been ripped apart by the force of a vicious accident marring the final lap of Saturday’s Nationwide Series opener at Daytona International Speedway. Twelve cars were involved in a melee that erupted when race leader Regan Smith tried to block Brad Keselowski approaching the checkered flag, and the result was a storm of flying metal that sent parts of Larson’s car through the catchfence.
Afterward, Daytona International Speedway President Joie Chitwood III said 14 spectators were treated on site for injuries and 14 were taken off site for treatment of injuries. The scene immediately following the accident was surreal, with the engine and tires from Larson’s car penetrating the catchfence and coming to rest in the grandstands.
"My fault. I threw a block. I’ll take the blame for it."
While they awaited word on fans who had been seated near those areas, all the drivers involved were treated and released from Daytona’s infield care center. That included Larson, the 20-year-old rookie who took the wildest ride of Speedweeks, and emerged uninjured from a vehicle that had its front and rear ends completely sheared off by the accident.
“I’m fine. Sprint cars wreck a lot harder,” said Larson, who came up in USAC and the World of Outlaws. “Or, they feel they wreck a lot harder. But yeah, it was definitely a big hit. Hopefully, I don’t have another one like that in stock cars.”
The wreck unfolded after Smith and Keselowski had assumed the lead from Tony Stewart, who was behind the accident and would ultimately win the race. The two had drafted together as partners, but nearing the checkered flag it became every driver for himself. Keselowski went high in a move to win the race, and Smith went high to block him -- but he didn’t have enough room, and the two vehicles made contact to spark the crash.
“My fault,” said Smith, who finished 14th. “I threw a block. I’ll take the blame for it. But when you see the checkered flag at Daytona, you’re going to block, and you’re going to do everything you can to be the first car back to the stripe. It just didn’t work out today. Just hoping everything is OK, everyone who was in the wreck and all the fans.”
Keselowski understood. “Regan was in a good spot,” he said. “He was first and I was second, and we were pushing. I kind of had the run and the move to win the race, and Regan obviously tried to block it, and that’s understandable. He wants to win too, and at the end it just caused chaos. There was obviously a big wreck with a lot of debris and cars torn up. I really hope everyone in the grandstands is OK. I think that’s the most important thing right now.”
That sentiment was reflected by every driver emerging from the care center. Alex Bowman, a 19-year-old rookie, got into the grass and rebounded into the outside wall, where his car was hit again and nearly turned over. Dale Earnhardt Jr. clipped the right-front of Smith’s car. Brian Scott and Justin Allgaier were steaming to the finish up in the high line, and plowed right into the mess.
“I thought maybe there was a chance I could squeeze through it, and I knew the finish line was coming,” Scott said. “I just wanted to at least have momentum to carry us through to the finish line, even if we wrecked. So I held it wide open. So I hit (Smith) a ton. (Allgaier) hit me a ton. We all just hit a ton.”
Scott made it through enough to secure a sixth-place finish. Bowman skidded past the finish line before getting the worst of it, and was credited with third. Allgaier hung on for seventh.
“We all knew it was getting busy at the front,” Allgaier said. “Obviously, you have a lot of two-car tandems trying to get up there and trying to go for that win. I don’t know what happened exactly, buy when you’re running that fast and that close together, especially with all the speedy-dry that’s been on the race track, and the headwind we had, it’s not hard to get one turned around. Unfortunately, we see the results of it.”
The race also featured an earlier incident that sent Michael Annett to the hospital complaining of pain in his chest and sternum. According to a statement issued by his Richard Petty Motorsports team late Saturday afternoon, Annett was being held at Halifax Medical Center for observation. He was being treated for bruising on his chest, and had undergone a CT scan.
So drivers were expecting it to get dicey at the end. “It happens on the last lap,” Earnhardt said. “Always does. You can bet on it.”
“I knew coming off (Turn) 4 I was going to have to throw a block,” Smith added. “That’s a product of the tandem racing. Brad knew he was going to make a move. And that was all there was to it.”
It was a hit from Allgaier’s car that sent Larson airborne and into the catchfence. Saturday marked the end of an eventful Speedweeks for the Drive for Diversity product, who on Monday was involved in a controversial finish when he bumped C.E. Falk out of the way to win to the All-American Series race in the Battle at the Beach.
“It’s definitely been one I’ll never forget,” Larson said. “Got to race a lot, had some controversy over the late model win. Won a midget race also. If I can get out of here soon enough, I’m supposed to go race a non-winged sprint car at Ocala. But I doubt I see that happening tonight.”
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