Brian Vickers cuts tire, collects Dale Earnhardt Jr. and others in Sprint Unlimited

The first big crash of the Sprint Unlimited happened on Lap 23, when Brian Vickers turned left heading into Turn 1, triggering a seven-car crash that also caught up Dale Earnhardt Jr., Kevin Harvick and Greg Biffle, among others Saturday night at Daytona International Speedway. 

The incident meant several of the pre-race favorites were eliminated from contention, most notably three-time Unlimited winner Harvick and two-time winner Earnhardt. 

It was a brutal return to competition for Vickers, who was making his first start in nearly a year, subbing for the injured Tony Stewart in the No. 14 Stewart-Haas Racing Chevrolet. 

Vickers clipped Earnhardt’s rear bumper, slid back across the track and slammed Harvick into the outside wall. The melee also involved Kurt Busch, Greg Biffle and AJ Allmendinger.

Vickers was evaluated and released from the infield care center. He finished 24th in the 25-car field. Denny Hamlin won, giving Joe Gibbs Racing its fourth Unlimited victory in the last five years.

The 32-year-old Vickers blamed a flat tire for causing him to lose control and get sideways going into a turn.

"I don’t know how I cut it yet," he said. "I felt it going down the straightaway, and at that point, I started to roll out. But at that point, you’re going 200 mph and there’s nothing you can do."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.