To get an idea of just how wild Saturday night’s race under the lights at Daytona International Speedway might be, it requires merely looking back on last year’s running of the annual mid-summer classic at The World Center of Racing.
One ill-advised move on the final lap sent Austin Dillon’s No. 3 Chevrolet sailing airborne into the frontstretch catchfence and the entire sport holding its collective breath until the moment Dillon climbed out of his battered machine.
Thankfully, Dillon walked away with just bruises, but the violent nature of the wreck was a stark reminder of the imminent dangers that accompany restrictor-plate racing at Daytona and Talladega Superspeedway.
“It’s not really acceptable,” Dillon said of the hazards that plate racing brings. “I mean, we’ve got to figure out something. I think our speeds are too high; I really do. 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. That’s the next thing. We’re fighting hard to make the racing good. I hope fans enjoy all that. We don’t, but … that’s your job. You go out there and you hold it wide open to the end, checkers or wrecker, and hope you make it through.”
Dale Earnhardt Jr., who won last July’s race at Daytona and witnessed Dillon’s crash through his rearview mirror, was so shaken in Victory Lane that it was difficult to even celebrate.
“It was real frightening,” said Earnhardt, whose legendary father died in a wreck on the final lap of the 2001 Daytona 500. “I mean, you’re just on the verge of tears, to be honest with you, because I think that the first thing that goes through your mind is I saw everything in the mirror pretty clearly, and that car really went up in the air pretty high, and I could just see that it was a black object that hit that fence, and so I’m assuming I’m looking at the undercarriage of the car.
“I’ve never really seen a roll cage handle those catch fences very well, and I just was very scared for whoever that was. I didn’t even know what car it was, so I was just very scared for that person.”
While much of the attention entering Saturday night’s race will inevitably be on Dillon and reliving the vicious crash from which he emerged unscathed one year ago, the race could be one of more entertaining of the season.
Back in February, Denny Hamlin nipped Martin Truex Jr. by just .01 at the checkered flag to win the Daytona 500 in a finish that marked the closest in the 58-year history of The Great American Race. Saturday night could end up being another thriller.
“It’s all about survival,” said 2008 Daytona 500 champion Ryan Newman. “It is a track where most of the cars are fairly equal and you have to be there at the end. There is no guarantee when the end is going to be like last year. It could be rain-shortened. We could have a long green-flag run or we could have several restarts where it is very difficult to pass at times. It all depends. If the cars go single file, it’s pretty difficult to pass as well. You just don’t know how it is going to pan out until you race.”
Tony Stewart, fresh off a huge win last weekend at Sonoma, will be making his final Daytona start.
“Everybody has got a shot at Daytona,” said Stewart, a four-time winner of the July race at the 2.5-mile superspeedway. “We’ve been in that position before and have actually been able to take advantage quite a few times. The biggest thing is it gives you confidence that you’ve got a shot.”