Daytona drivers, fans survive the chaos

Daytona 500 was plagued by storms, flames and wreckage. It was a miracle no one was hurt, Mark Kriegel says

It began as a trickle, a line of lava spilling down the slope of the track. In a moment, it had combusted into something like a huge bonfire. Then, within seconds, it had transfigured yet again: a wall of flame, awesome, terrifying, almost biblical.

The 54th running of The Great American Race was plagued by rain and fire and, as it ended at 12:56 a.m. EST, covered in a shroud of fog. Still, for all the alleged plagues, I’d consider it a miracle. I refer mostly to the survival and continued good health of Juan Pablo Montoya, driver of the No. 42 Target Chevrolet, and the driver he hit, Duane Barnes.

For the past 24 years, Barnes has driven the Service Master jet dryer at Michigan International Speedway. For the past few days, he’s been plowing around the damp Daytona asphalt.

Dale Earnhardt Jr., who lost his father on this track 11 years ago, had a foreboding sense after seeing the flames rise from the wreck. “It looked like something that was tragic,” he said.

By the time I got out to the backstretch, the fire had been doused. The asphalt was white with foam, a sea upon which floated an armada of fire engines and ambulances. Montoya awaited his discharge from the Infield Care Center, and Barnes was on his way to the Halifax Medical Center, where he would be treated, observed and released.

But fans were still craning to get a look through the chain-link fence. Others were perched atop their motor homes, spellbound at the sky, where the DirecTV blimp was enveloped in an acrid mist.

Smoke unfurled from the wreck in a thick, black stream. But dispersed in the atmosphere, it formed gargantuan, moonlit, blue-gray clouds. It felt apocalyptic, but just the same, wondrous. Nobody died. Nobody was even seriously hurt.

“Phenomenal,” said Daytona International Speedway president Joie Chitwood III. “We had approximately 200 gallons of burning jet fuel on the racetrack.  . . . Tonight validates what we do.”

The Speedweeks seemed to tempt fate. Fans want to see pack racing. They want to see wrecks. But you could not help but wonder whether the risks have become too great.

“You bring such a nice car down here,” Earnhardt drawled. “And the odds of it getting torn up are pretty high.”

Of the 43 cars in the Monday night race, 25 were damaged. Eleven couldn’t finish, eight of those because of accidents. It’s been that way since the drivers arrived here. In the Budweiser Shootout — as dangerous as it was spectacular — 21 of 25 cars were damaged. Twelve did not finish because of accidents. The Nationwide race Saturday saw 37 of the 43 cars damaged. Altogether, including the truck and qualifying races, there were 196 entrants over the past 11 days. One hundred and eighteen were damaged. Sixty-one were unable to finish because of accidents.

A tragic outcome did not seem an improbable one. Actually, it felt like a certainty after Montoya’s Chevy punctured the dryer’s fuel cell. He had just come out of a pit stop.

“I wasn’t even going that fast,” Montoya recalled. “It just felt really strange, as I was talking on the radio the car just turned right . . .

“I have hit a lot of things. But a jet dryer? No.”

Montoya’s helmet was on fire as he got out of the car. He sustained no damage, other than scraping his foot on the clutch. As for Duane Barnes, they shared an ambulance ride to the infield.

“He was pretty scared,” Montoya said. “ . . . I am sure he is pretty shaken and is going to be sore to his person, but I think he is OK.”

“OK” is a relative diagnosis, not a medical one. Still, Barnes was released from the hospital even before the track was ready again. Workers sprayed fire retardant, drying agents, bonding agents and several applications of soap and water. Finally, after two hours and five minutes, the race resumed.

There were 40 laps to go, most of them with Roush Fenway drivers Matt Kenseth and Greg Biffle running first and second, respectively, and Earnhardt in third.

As it ended, Earnhardt pushed past Biffle just before the finish line. He just didn’t have enough car to threaten Kenseth, who won his second Daytona 500 in the past four years.

“Those Roush cars are just really strong,” Earnhardt said. “I could get in between them. I just couldn’t get in front.”

He’ll second guess himself in the coming days, wonder what he could’ve done differently. After all, Earnhardt’s winless streak now stands at 130 races.

Still, he couldn’t help but remark on his good fortune. He starts the season with a pile of points. His car remains in one piece, not an inconsiderable accomplishment at this track. But more than that, the tragic outcome had been avoided. It makes for an especially happy ending if your name is Earnhardt.

“I was happy to hear that everybody was OK,” he said, “and able to go home to their families tonight.”

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