Stewart Wins, Last-Lap Melee Injures Fans

Tony Stewart in victory lane after Saturday's DRIVE4COPD 300 at Daytona Int'l Speedway. (HHP/Harold Hinson)
Tony Stewart in victory lane after Saturday’s DRIVE4COPD 300 at Daytona Int’l Speedway. (HHP/Harold Hinson)

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Tony Stewart won Saturday’s NASCAR Nationwide Series race at Daytona Int’l Speedway in a contest that could only be described as “NASCAR at its worst.”

Rookie driver Kyle Larson’s car went airborne and sailed into the catchfence, sending debris into the packed grandstand.

With smoke from tires rubbing, Regan Smith got a push to the lead from Keselowski but got turned heading toward the checkered flag. With cars flying airborne Stewart took the checkered flag.

The engine from Larson’s car went on the other side of the fence and was burning from the impact as security officials tried to make sure spectators were kept away from the carnage. Twenty-eight fans were injured and 14 were transported to area hospitals, including one suffering from head trauma.

NASCAR President Mike Helton said there were plenty of emergency workers on the scene.

“They are moving folks as we have seen to care centers and taking some folks to Halifax Medical Center,” Helton said on ESPN’s telecast of the race. “Right now we are trying to determine what happened. The catchfence did its job. We know what we know but the biggest thing is we don’t know everything we need to know. We are trying to make it as safe as possible for the competitors and the fans.

“We’re always aware of the fact that we don’t know everything.”

Stewart, who earned his seventh Daytona Nationwide Series triumph, had a grim look on his face after the chaotic finish proved once again how dangerous restrictor-plate racing can be.

“We’ve always known since racing started this is a dangerous sport,” Stewart said. “The drivers assume the risk but it’s bad when you see spectators get hurt. I saw it all in my mirror and I knew it wasn’t good.

“It’s a hard thing for NASCAR. There is no easy solution and there never has been. I’m just thinking about the guys on the frontstretch right now and hope they are OK.”

Smith admitted he “threw the block” on Keselowski at the end of the race because: “It’s Daytona you want to go for the win. We were heading to the checkered flag. I hope everybody in the grandstands is OK. Brad is a good friend; he pushed me toward the front and we both wanted to win the race.

“You are coming to the checkered at Daytona — it doesn’t matter if it is the Nationwide race or the ARCA race. You want to win.”

Larson was treated and released from the infield care center after ending his first NASCAR Nationwide Series race with nothing more than the firewall around him when the dust settled.

“I’m not sure where everything ended up on the race track,” Larson said. “I hope all the fans are OK and the drivers are all right. I took a couple big hits there and saw my engine was gone. By the time my spotter told me to go low it was too late. I saw some flames in the cockpit but was able to get out.”

Debris, including one wheel and a large chunk of the car flew into the grandstand, while the car’s engine became lodged in the catchfence.

Stewart restarted 21st with 11 laps to go and was able to dig his way from the pack to get a push from Sam Hornish Jr. with seven laps to go to make it to fifth place. Stewart went to the outside to battle for fourth place with the laps winding down.

Stewart was third with six laps to go and with Hornish as his pusher was able to race to the lead, passing the tandem of Regan Smith and Brad Keselowski.

But when Austin Dillon’s Chevrolet got turned by Michael Annett in the middle of the pack between turns one and two, a multi-car accident sent cars scattered all over the race course.

NASCAR displayed the red flag to stop the race with four laps to go after the 11-car pile-up. After the red flag was withdrawn all three Joe Gibbs Racing cars pitted with one lap to go. Smith was the leader and chose the inside lane for the restart flanked by Stewart.

Stewart got a push from Hornish to move into the lead down the backstretch. As the white flag waved Smith attempted to go to the outside getting a push from Keselowski.

And then mayhem ensued.

Annett was transported to Halifax Health Medical Center after complaining of pain in his chest and sternum. Annett was treated for bruising on his chest and underwent a CT Scan.