The Daytona 300 ran Saturday afternoon and it was by far the most exciting race of Speedweeks, an epic battle where a race-record 20 drivers led and the lead changed 34 times - it also proved to be the most frightening. A massive fight for the lead that raged on and off all day turned into a huge crash and a violent flight into the trioval fencing by rookie Kyle Larson, already involved in several scrapes in Late Model and Modified action earlier in the week on Daytona's new backstretch bullring. Larson tumbled into the fencing, then the nose of his car inexplicably snagged the crossover gate and the engine was ripped out of the car, sending one tire flying some ten rows into the main stands. Larson's #32 tumbled to a stop, a crash reminiscent of the fatal Don McTavish melee near that same trioval in 1969's Daytona 300.
The sheer violence of the melee muted celebration of the race win by Tony Stewart, a record seventh Grand National Sportsman win at Daytona and sixth in the 300's last seven runnings. Some fourteen spectators were hospitalized; reportedly two were critical but had been upgraded to stable by 11 PM Saturday night, and Sunday morning it appeared all were stable.
The crash has brought about the inevitable discussion about spectator closeness to the racing surface as well as the safety of the sport. Some have taken the expected shots that it was a restrictor plate crash, and reviews of this crash naturally brings comparison to past melees in NASCAR history.
But criticisms of restrictor plate racing in this discussion ignore as always similar crashes on local bullrings over the years - this writer witnessed at the 2001 season finale at Thompson Speedway a crash in Turn Three where several spectators were injured - as well as at the Cup level - crashes such as Brad Keselowski's melee with Carl Edwards in 2010 at Gateway and his tumble at Atlanta in 2010 were closer calls than most realize and the epidemic of injuries in the sport has almost entirely taken place on non-plate tracks - such as Sterling Marlin's near-fatal crash at Kansas in 2002, the 2000-01 epidemic of fatalities at New Hamsphire, Texas, and Charlotte, Jerry Nadeau's vicious crash at Richmond in 2003, and Bobby Hamilton's last-lap Richmond Truck race melee that wound up cutting short his season - to cite a few examples.
Cited has been Carl Edwards' bitter mocking comment about his 2009 Talladega crash where he blamed NASCAR for "putting us in this box," ignoring that his crash took place with four cars separated from the rest of the field. Such criticisms are a case of assigning blame to everything except the performance levels of the racecars.
The fencing at Daytona and other tracks will be reinforced, though one has to nonetheless ask whether making the fences stronger may wind up being counterproductive - it may not necessarily be such a slam-dunk good idea.
Even though they are restricted, the speed of the cars should not be ignored, with speeds 194 and above now common and trap speeds at 200 being recorded. The idea that another 10 MPH can be taken out of the speeds shouldn't be dismissed.
It put a damper on the best race of Speedweeks, a race that bucked some trends of this Speedweeks. All week long the complaint was the high groove was the only fast groove, but in the Daytona 300 the opposite was the case. The race saw plenty of the tandem drafting missing from the Cup cars and which the Trucks on Friday night made a real effort to revive - this made possible the 34 lead changes, far more in this one race than seen for all of Speedweeks (and another indictment of the rules myopia of Brian France and the Cup cars).
The Joe Gibbs Toyotas (Matt Kenseth, Kyle Busch, Elliott Sadler, and Brian Vickers) proved to be the strongest cars (Vickers to a far lesser extent than the others) for much of the day - so much so as to be surprisingly almost unpassable until in the race's second half Regan Smith and others finally forced past the JGR fleet. Smith wound up suffering the biggest heartbreak as he blew into the lead on the final lap and had the race won until getting blasted head-on into the trioval wall. It was the gift for Tony Stewart, who'd lost the draft earlier and was only able to gain third on the final lap before the wreck.
Also star-crossed was Michael Annett in Richard Petty's #43, who bounced up and down the field and pushed all the way to second and was still in the fight until he sideswiped Austin Dillon and a major melee erupted. Curiously it is the second straight Daytona Grand National Sportsman race he and Dillon have tangled in a major crash.
There was inevitable over-coverage of Danica Patrick, who led briefly then faded before falling out with engine failure. Hyped because she is running Winston Cup in 2013, Patrick has garnered foolishly positive press coverage despite poor effort in the racing itself - the story of her major league racing career from 2005 onward.
For what it's worth, a bizarre coincidence also comes to mind - this is the second time a Speedweeks has been haunted by a bad crash in a year where the Baltimore Ravens won the Superbowl (even more ironic with Ray Lewis named honorary starter for the 500).
NASCAR met its worst nightmare on Saturday. Though it was very close, it nonetheless escaped it.