Tony Stewart won Saturday’s DRIVE4COPD 300 at Daytona International Speedway, but the elation of his victory disappeared in the wake of a heart-stopping wreck that saw Kyle Larson’s car demolished after flying into the crossover gate that provides access from the asphalt to the main grandstand.
As Stewart dodged the crash and crossed the finish line, the front clip of Larson’s car sheared off, ripping the engine out of its compartment. The front suspension and engine ended up on the walkway at the bottom of the stands.
A tire from Larson’s car also flew into the grandstands.
Regan Smith led as the cars approached the checkered flag, but Smith tried to block Brad Keselowski, who was running second, and turned across the nose of Keselowski’s car.
Daytona International Speedway president Joie Chitwood III indicated that 14 spectators were transported to medical facilities off-property and 14 others were treated on site.
“First and foremost, our thoughts and prayers are with our race fans,” Chitwood said. “On the incident, we responded appropriately according to our safety protocols and had emergency medical personnel at the incident immediately.
“We transported 14 people off property and treated 14 people at our on-track care center.”
Chitwood referred questions about the conditions of the injured fans to Halifax Medical Center.
“I’d have to refer you to Halifax for any of the conditions of the patients,” Chitwood said.
Byron Cogdell, spokesperson from Halifax Health, said seven spectators had been transported to Halifax Medical with injuries related to the accident, five more spectators for other issues. Two of the injured spectators, one adult and one child, were in critical condition, though all patients were listed as stable.
The adult who was in critical condition was suffering from head trauma, Cogdell said. Halifax has not released the names of the injured pending notification of and consent from their families.
Steve O’Donnell, NASCAR’s senior vice president of racing operations, said all drivers involved in the last-lap crash had been treated and released from the infield care center.
As Chitwood and O’Donnell spoke, and with Sunday’s Daytona 500 17 hours away, track workers continued the process of repairing the fencing in the area of the crossover gate, approximately 75 yards short of the start/finish line at the 2.5-mile superspeedway.
“We’re very confident that we’ll be ready for (Sunday’s) event, with the 55th running of the Daytona 500,” O’Donnell said. “But, as with any of these incidents, we’ll conduct a thorough review. We’ll work closely with the tracks as with all our events, learn what we can and see what we can apply in the future.”
The emergency in the grandstand tempered Stewart’s fifth victory in his last six February races at Daytona and the 11th Nationwide Series win of his career.
“Fortunately, with the way the event’s equipped up, there were plenty of emergency workers ready to go, and they jumped in on it pretty quickly,” NASCAR president Mike Helton told ESPN. “And right now, it’s just a function of trying to determine what all damage is done.
“They’re moving folks, as we’ve seen, to care centers and taking some folks over to Halifax Medical (Center), so we’ll be able to update later on, but right now, all we know is everybody’s working real hard on determining what all happened.”
Larson climbed from his car almost immediately and was evaluated and released from the infield care center.
Drivers, Larson included, were more concerned with the safety of the fans than the outcome of the race.
“The important thing is what’s going on on the frontstretch right now,” Stewart said after climbing from his car. “We’ve always known since racing was started this is a dangerous sport. But it’s hard. We assume that risk. It’s hard when the fans get caught up in it.
“As much as we want to celebrate right now, as much as this is a big deal to us, I’m more worried about the drivers and fans in the stands right now. I could see it all in the mirror and it didn’t look good from where I was either.”
Smith said he wasn’t about to surrender the victory to Keselowski 200 yards from the finish line, but his first thoughts were with the injured spectators.
“Everybody the only thing I’m concerned about right now is the people in the stands,” Smith posted to his Twitter account after the race. “Praying for all who were affected by the accident.”
Keselowski echoed the concern and said he understood Smith’s attempt to block his move.
“We made a move to try and win the race,” Keselowski said. “We were in the catbird seat. Regan was in a good spot. 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.
Sam Hornish Jr. crossed the stripe in second place, followed by rookie Alex Bowman, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Parker Kligerman.
The last-lap wreck wasn’t the only serious incident of the event. A 13-car wreck in Turns 1 and 2, triggered by contact between the No. 43 Ford Mustang of Michael Annett and the No. 3 Chevrolet Camaro of Austin Dillon — both championship hopefuls — stopped the race after 116 laps and set up the finish.
Annett was transported to Halifax Health Medical Center. Richard Petty Motorsports later reported that Annett, whose car slammed the outside wall nose-first, was treated for bruising on his chest and received a CT scan. He remains in the hospital for further observation.