Austin Dillon on speeds, frightening crash at Daytona: ‘It’s really not acceptable’

Austin Dillon (3) goes airborne and hits the catch fence as he was involved in a multi-car crash on the final lap of the NASCAR Sprint Cup series race at Daytona International Speedway early Monday.
Austin Dillon (3) goes airborne and hits the catch fence as he was involved in a multi-car crash on the final lap of the NASCAR Sprint Cup series race at Daytona International Speedway early Monday. AP

Austin Dillon walked away from a violent crash at Daytona International Speedway early Monday morning with a bruised tailbone and forearm and a strong opinion about racing at NASCAR’s fastest tracks.

Dillon’s Chevrolet careened at about 200 mph into a 22-foot high catch fence along the frontstretch of Daytona International Speedway early Monday morning as the rain-delayed Coke Zero 400 ended.

After being released from the infield care center, he said he worries that the speeds the cars are running at Daytona and Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway continue to be too high.

“It’s not really acceptable,” he said. “We’ve got to figure this out. I think the speeds are too high. We can have good racing at lower speeds, but we’ve got to figure out how to keep cars on the ground.

“I hope the fans enjoy it, but we don’t. But that’s our job. You go out there and hold it wide open to the end.”

Dillon then invoked an old racing saying.

“It’s ‘checkers or wreckers,’” he said. “You just hope you make it through.”

The accident also shook race winner Dale Earnhardt Jr., who’s father, Hall of Famer Dale Earnhardt, was killed in a last-lap crash at Daytona in 2001. Earnhardt Jr. watched the crash in his rear-view mirror.

“I was near tears,” he said. “You don’t want to see anybody get hurt. It’s awful. It’s an awful feeling.”

Dillon’s crash happened as a pack of cars crossed the start-finish line behind Earnhardt and runner-up Jimmie Johnson. It appeared to start when Kevin Harvick pushed Denny Hamlin, lifting the rear of Hamlin’s car off the ground. That caused a chain reaction behind them, with Dillon jumping across two other cars, then flying into the fence.

Dillon’s car was totaled and sustained further damage when it was hit by Brad Keselowski’s Ford after settling on the track. The fence was twisted and mangled.

Speedway president Joie Chitwood said three fans were treated with minor injuries from debris flying into the stands. A fourth was transported to a local hospital and released early Monday.

Members of Earnhardt’s crew, who were heading out to congratulate their driver, ran instead to help Dillon, who climbed out of the car relatively unhurt.

“It was very vicious,” Dillon said of the crash. “It’s swishing around in there and the belts are loosening with each hit. The fourth one is going to hurt more than the others.”

Chitwood and NASCAR spokesman Brett Jewkes said after the race they were pleased the catch fence stopped Dillon’s car the way it did. Daytona reinforced its catch fences after a similar wreck involving Kyle Larson in an Xfinity Series race in 2013.

“I’m really proud of the fact that the fence worked,” said Chitwood. “We’ll take this situation and we’ll learn from it.”

Said Jewkes: “We’ll look at every part of the incident, from the accident to the aftermath. If there are areas we need to address, we will.”

Rain forced the start of the race to be delayed by 3 hours and 34 minutes (with a 11:42 p.m. start time Sunday).

“You can feel the weight of the day kind of on you, on your eyes,” runner-up Jimmie Johnson said of the long delay. “Just sitting around and waiting for it, there was a feeling at about 8 or 8:30 the deal was over, so mentally I started shutting down. Being in the sport as long as I have, you learn how to turn it off and on.”

Earnhardt didn’t celebrate much after his victory. He said he would wait until after he returned home to Mooresville later Monday and got some sleep before doing that. But the sight of Dillon’s car going airborne and hitting the fence still had left him shaken.

“You think about the car getting that high, what has it done and is there any danger to the spectators,” said Earnhardt. “I didn’t care about anything except for just figuring out who was OK.

“I mean, racing doesn’t matter any more.”

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