Last year, the West Palm Beach Motorsports Examiner was lucky enough to attend the NASCAR Nationwide event at the Daytona International Speedway, courtesy of the good people at American Majority Racing. This year, however, he was trapped in front of the television with millions of other fans as one of the most action packed and memorable Drive 4 COPD 300 events ever took place.
On Saturday, Feb. 23, 40 cars took to the track in pursuit of victory at the "world center of racing." Led to the green flag by past Daytona 500 champion and former series champion Trevor Bayne, the race proved that although the two car tandem may be dead in the Sprint Cup series, it is alive and well in Nationwide. This sort of racing is not without it's pitfalls, however, and led to numerous accidents and engine failures. The first caution of the day came out on lap 5, with driver Scott Lagasse, Jr. barely avoiding the most famous orange cone in the world in a single car spin. This gave America's favorite female driver, Danica Patrick, her one and only shot at the lead.
After a series of pit stops, the field was led by a parade of different drivers in front of a pack that measured two to three cars wide. The two car tandem was able to pull ahead, and anyone who was able to split off into these groups moved quickly through the pack.
Through several early lead changes, Elliot Sadler dominated the early part of the race, with Kyle Busch and Brian Vickers in close pursuit.
NASCAR Sprint Cup champion Brad Keselowski took over the lead on lap 28, aided by his Penske Racing teammate Sam Hornish, Jr. The two competitors stayed pretty much hooked together throughout the entire race, and showed what the spirit of teamwork really is.
He was soon replaced at the front of the field by 2011 Daytona 500 champion Trevor Bayne, but Kyle Busch soon took the lead at lap 31.
The second caution of the day took place on lap 32 for a spin by Regan Smith. During that caution, Danica Patrick took her car to the garage area suffering from a total loss of power. She did not return to the racetrack.
Kyle Busch remained in control of the race, and after 100 of the 300 scheduled miles, almost the entire field was stacked up behind him Busch was followed closely behind by his new Joe Gibbs Racing teammate, Matt Kenseth.
Kenseth took the lead from Busch after the two car tandem had to switch places, and began to pull away from the rest of the pack.
At the halfway point of the race, Kyle Busch was still in the lead, with 35 of the 40 cars entered still running; each of them on the lead lap.
Caution number 3 occurred on lap 65, with a major incident involving Mike Wallace, Joe Nemechek, Reed Sorensen, and Kurt Busch. Though the incident led to the retirement of Kurt Busch from the race, the major damage appeared to be to the infield grass. As we found out later in the race, however, this will be the least of the repairs needed before the Daytona 500 on Sunday.
Regan Smith took the lead after pit stops on lap 71, but was quickly overtaken by Dale Earnhardt, Jr. Racing phenom Kyle Larson, who proved earlier in the week that he has the drive to win, moved into second place.
Smith wasn't through with the lead yet, however, and returned to the front of the field 2 laps later. He still led at the 200 mile mark, with 28 of the remaining cars still on the lead lap.
The fourth caution came out when Trevor Bayne suffered from engine/drive shaft failure. This allowed Brad Keselowski to return to the front of the field, and put Kyle Larson back in the second position.
Kenseth, pushed by his teammate Kyle Busch, returned to the lead at lap 90, but it wouldn't last long. On lap 93, Brian Scott took the lead, with tandems, packs, and single cars all vying for position behind him.
Numerous cars took turns for the lead, until the fifth caution of the day came out at lap 100 for Kyle Busch, who suffered from overheating that led to total engine failure. While under caution, Regan Smith's day ended, also due to a blown engine.
It seems as though NASCAR's attempt to keep tandem drafting under control by limiting the size of the air intake helped lead to numerous engine failures during the event. It will be interesting to see if the same thing happens to the Gen 6 cars in the Daytona 500.
Parker Kligerman took the lead with 14 laps to go, with Larson returning to his favorite position of the day; second. That didn't last long, however, as Elliott Sadler returned to the lead with 10 laps to go.
With 9 laps to go, Regan Smith showed his hand once again, and took the top spot. He was soon passed by Tony Stewart, but retook the lead with 4 laps to go in front of a massive crash involving 11 cars. At this point, NASCAR threw the red flag, and the field had time to cool their engines, and strategize for the end of the race.
Regan Smith led the field to the restart, and Tony Stewart took the lead with one lap to go. That's when the real insanity began. Numerous tandems, single cars, and more volleyed for the lead, and it caused a massive pile-up that sent the entire front half of Kyle Larson's car through the catch fence and into the grandstands.
Miraculously, Larson emerged from what was left of his machine completely unscathed, which, unfortunately, cannot be said for some of the people in the grandstands.
"I feel good," stated Larson after being released from the infield care center. "I just hope everyone is alright."
Shortly after the race has ended, neither NASCAR nor Daytona International Speedway officials had commented on the extent of the injuries to spectators, though Mike Helton did comment to ESPN saying that everything in their power was being done to help those who were injured.
"The hard part is you can't get away from everybody," stated a stunned Tony Stewart from Victory Lane. "We're just thinking about the guys and the front stretch right now more than what we're doing."
The West Palm Beach Motorsports Examiner offers his thoughts and prayers to the individuals injured at the Daytona International Speedway.
"First and foremost, our thoughts and prayers are with our race fans. Following the incident, we responded appropriately according to our safety protocols and had emergency medical personnel at the incident immediately," stated Daytona International Speedway President Joie Chitwood III.
"We transported 14 people off property and 14 were treated at our on-track care center," Chitwood continued. "We are in the process of repairing the facility, and we will be ready to go racing tomorrow."
It will be interesting to see how the events of the NASCAR Nationwide event affect the racing at the Daytona 500 on Sunday, and whether or not the fact that spectators were injured will have any impact on the way that seating is setup at raceways in the future.
"Our thoughts and prayers are with the fans and their loved ones who were affected by today’s incident,” said Matt Jauchius, chief marketing officer for Nationwide Insurance. "We would like to commend NASCAR, Daytona International Speedway and the medical personnel involved for their quick response to the situation.
"We appreciate the updates on NASCAR driver Michael Annett, who was injured in an earlier accident today, and wish him a fast and full recovery.”
According to an early morning statement from his race team on Sunday, Michael was been released from the hospital & is returning to North Carolina. He will be reevaluated before next week's race in Phoenix.
Tickets for the Daytona 500, as well as the other events being held at Daytona this year, are available online or by calling 1-800-PITSHOP.
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