Earnhardt Wins Delayed Coke Zero 400

| July 6, 2015
Ovalzone Photo

Ovalzone Photo

Orlando Sentinel

DAYTONA BEACH – The mangled car disintegrated across the track, small pieces scattering into the stands, the engine plopping on the grass, just as winner Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s Chevy had crossed the finish line.

Right behind him, Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson looked in his rearview mirror and feared the worst.

“I’m shocked that Austin Dillon is still alive,” Johnson said.

Polesitter Earnhardt had his second of the year but the luckiest man on the race track – maybe on the planet – was Dillon, whose Chevy went airborne at the end of the last lap of the Coke Zero 400 at Daytona International Speedway late Sunday night.

The machine was destroyed. The man was OK.

“Just thank the good Lord for taking care of me and for what NASCAR has done to make the sport this much safer,” said Dillon, who suffered a bruised tailbone and forearm but was otherwise fine.

Dillon’s car got entangled with a number of other cars and went airborne into a catch fence. The incident was reminiscent of a crash in 2013 when Kyle Larson’s car went flying into the grandstands, injuring 28 fans, on the day before the Daytona 500.

This time four fans suffered injuries, and one was transferred to a local hospital, with that person reported to be in stable condition.

On a night not short for drama, Earnhardt won his second restrictor-plate race of the season to solidify his status as one of NASCAR’s best — just like his late daddy — at that game.

The race itself had the feel of another event held here, the Rolex 24. It was a long grind because of the predictable bad weather that rolls through Central Florida in the summer. Scheduled for a 7:45 p.m. start, the race didn’t begin until 11:42 p.m., long after the prime-time start that broadcast partner NBC hoped for in its inaugural NASCAR race of the season. It ended nearly three hours later in front of grandstands still filled with weather-hardy fans.

“There’s nothing you can do,” Brad Keselowski said. “At least it’s the same for everybody from that perspective. We’ll deal with it the best we can.”

Keselowski and the other 42 Cup competitors, hadn’t gotten in much drive-time this weekend. Qualifying for the race was canceled because of bad weather Saturday night. Since practice times set the grid, Dale Jr. ended up on the pole, with Dillon — who won Saturday’s Xfinity race — on the outside pole.

Once the engines revved up, the race settled into the typical Daytona Drama: the occasional wrecks that picked off a handful of competitors each time, and the last-laps chaos that would once again include a green-white-checker finish.

Earnhardt Jr. had the most dominant car of the night, leading 96 laps, but needed to fend off the final challenge from Johnson and Joe Gibbs Racing rival Denny Hamlin. But as cars jockeyed about in two and sometimes three lanes, nobody had anything for Earnhardt.

“We had two or three shots at it and just couldn’t get anything to go,” Johnson said, who thought he had a shot at the last re-start with two laps to go. “But I didn’t have any helping getting through [Turns] 1 and 2, lost control of my lane, and Junior was so strong all night. You give him control of a race; he’s not going to give that up.”

Earnhardt scored his ninth Top 5 finish of the season, but the sober tone of his press conference reflected the mood of the night. Like everyone else, his mind was not so much on winning but the crazy carnage that ensued behind him.

Instead of taking a celebratory victory lap, Earnhardt slowed down to wait for news of Dillon as crew chief Greg Ives signaled his team to help assist Dillon, who emerged from the wreckage and raised both hands to acknowledge the fans.

“It scared the [bleep] out of me,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “I was near tears.

“… I was just very scared for whomever it was. I didn’t even know who it was. I didn’t care about anything other than figuring out who was OK.”

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