DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — NASCAR and Daytona International Speedway officials confirmed that more than 30 fans were injured Saturday when debris from a 12-car crash on the last lap of the Nationwide Series opener flew into the grandstand.
The crash happened on the front stretch when leader Regan Smith tried to block Brad Keselowski. Rookie Kyle Larson helicoptered into the catch fence, near a crossover gate opening. The car penetrated the gate and caused the front-end suspension and engine to be sheared from the car and they landed on the walkway at the bottom of the stands. A tire from Larson’s car landed nine rows up in the grandstands near the start-finish line.
“We transported 14 people off property and treated 14 people at our on-track care center,’’ said track president Joie Chitwood. We’re in the process of repairing the facility and we’ll be ready to go racing [in Sunday’s Daytona 500].’’
Larson climbed out unhurt after his wild ride. When he took inventory of his smoldering wreck, he was shocked to see the front end had been cleaved from the car.
“I took a couple of big hits there and saw my engine was gone,’’ said Larson. “I was getting pushed from behind and by the time my spotter said, ‘Lift!’ it was too late. I tried to slow down and wound up getting turned around.’’
According to Steve O’Donnell, NASCAR’s senior vice president for racing operations, all 12 drivers involved in the accident were treated and released from the infield medical center.
“We’ve always known since racing started that it’s a dangerous sport,’’ said Tony Stewart, who eluded the accident to win the Drive4COPD 300.
The incident cast a pall on Stewart, though he won the season opener for the seventh time.
“As much as we want to celebrate right now and as much as this is a big deal to us, I’m more worried about the drivers and the fans in the stands right now,’’ Stewart said. “I could see it all in the mirror and it didn’t look good from our side.’’
Drivers send prayers
Danica Patrick, who will be the first woman to start the Daytona 500 from the pole position, finished 36th in the Nationwide race. She was forced to retire on Lap 31 because of engine failure. Afterward, Patrick posted on Twitter, “Hope and pray all the fans are ok after that big accident today.’’
Kyle Busch tweeted: “Unbelievable wreck! Saying prayers for everyone involved, especially the fans who love and support our sport that were closest to the crash.’’
Dale Earnhardt Jr., who will start 19th in the Daytona 500, turned the fastest lap (198.592 miles per hour) during Saturday’s final Sprint Cup practice session. David Gilliland was second fastest (198.421) followed by Clint Bowyer (198.242). Two other drivers crested 198 m.p.h: Marcos Ambrose (198.146) and Aric Almirola (198.037) . . . Former Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis, who retired after Baltimore’s victory in Super Bowl XLVII, will serve as the Daytona 500’s honorary starter.Michael Vega can be reached at email@example.com.