As Dale Earnhardt Jr. crossed the finish line, Austin Dillon hurled into the catchfence.
Daytona International Speedway—a restrictor plate track—is as prestigious and dangerous as they come. The mix creates an allure one can’t ignore. The high speeds and close racing make for the type of weaving and cutting a skilled seamstress would take pride in. The historic venue has been a stage for the most prideful moments in the sport of racing.
It’s also been the platform for the fiercest ones as well.
Sunday night was one of those moments.
The start of the Coke Zero 400 was late. Excruciatingly late. Weather shoved the sort into late-night infomercial territory, and many knew that peculiar things tend to happen in that realm. With the green flag waving around 11:45 p.m. ET, the masses settled in for a night full of adrenaline, speed, and nail biting.
In some way, they all hoped this would be worth the all-nighter. Drivers and crews desired a trophy and Chase berth by dawn. Spectators wanted their money’s worth, unsure of what that might entail.
Regardless of all wishful thinking, the festivities began.
Earnhardt was the clear favorite; starting from the pole, the No. 88 shot out front every possibly chance. His fellow Hendrick Motorsports teammates were also fast, yet no one was in the two-time Daytona 500 winner’s zip code. As the race progressed, he leaned on Denny Hamlin to draft him. Hamlin—who made risky moves work all night—obliged, and the two led a six- to seven-car breakaway in the race’s last 50 laps.
Slicing and dicing is a crucial part of restrictor plate racing, and it must be done with precision. A driver has to get it right, or things will get messy. That happened multiple times throughout the night, with two large wrecks taking out various contenders. Smaller incidents paused the action, giving everyone the opportunity to breathe and regroup.
As the laps dwindled away, urgency intensified. Minutes and hours ticked away. Time was running out—for the competitors who wanted to make a move and for the supporters who needed to clock in.
It came down to a green-white-checkered finish. The field restarted side-by-side, and they remained that way until the width expanded. As Earnhardt pulled away, followers scrambled to gain positions.
The white flag waved. At any other track, it was half past “go time,” but this was the moment Daytona—and the GWC rule—was designed to create. Its result, however, was not part of that plan.
Hamlin got loose and spun next to the finish line. The No. 11 came back and tapped Dillon, who proceeded to go airborne. More cars collected underneath the No. 3 as it flew into the catchfence. Debris rained into the stands as the machine bounced back onto the racing surface. Brad Keselowski’s car was skidding sideway down the frontstretch and slammed into Dillon’s side, putting the Richard Childress Racing car on its hood.
The mangled machine stopped at the end of pit road. Earnhardt’s pit crew rushed to the damage, falling to the ground and peering into the cockpit. The entire NASCAR community held their breath as more people flocked to the scene.
The sight of every crew member standing and giving a thumbs up filled every viewer with relief and emotion—and then fear.
Four fans sought treatment in the infield care center, while one went to the hospital in stable condition. There are two reasons no one was injured more seriously—the catchfence and the Daytona rising project. The tall, reinforced barrier did its job, keeping Dillon’s car inside the track. The expensive reconstruction plan pushed the grandstands away from the fence, placing a wide walkway between the fans and the action.
Praise is necessary. So is action.
There will be outrage over the incident; columns about danger will come out of the woodwork, and some mainstream media will broadcast this in a crooked way. A lot of good can come out of this accident if logic prevails.
The image of Earnhardt’s crew members rushing to Dillon’s side is the personification of sportsmanship. While their driver claimed victory, they chose to provide aid. Fellow competitors are thankful he survived such a terrifying accident.
Sunday night serves as a reminder to those who drive and those who observe. This is a dangerous sport. These athletes put their lives on the line to do what they love, and fans seek enjoyment from their risky lifestyle.
There is much to take away from that night, yet one is quite prevalent—there is always room from humanity and improvement in sports.