- Bob Pockrass, NASCAR
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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Dale Earnhardt Jr. knows about the dangers of racing, especially at Daytona International Speedway. So when he sees a car go airborne at the end of a race, it rattles him.
Earnhardt took the checkered flag to capture the Coke Zero 400 at Daytona International Speedway in a race that ended with a scary crash in which Austin Dillon's car flew into the catchfence.
Dillon's car was torn apart and landed on its roof on the track, where he was then smashed into by Brad Keselowski. Dillon suffered a bruised tailbone and bruised forearm.
Drivers were told after the race that there were a few minor injuries in the grandstands. Earnhardt was happy with the win but the seriousness of the moment obviously weighed on him.
"That was terrifying to watch," Earnhardt said. "You know a wreck like that has such a high potential for someone to get injured and you saw the car get high and get into the fence.
"You just worry about everybody else in the grandstands and all that stuff. You just don't want to see that happen. It was touch-and-go there for several moments. I'm more thankful that everybody is OK than to be standing here in Victory Lane, that is for sure."
It marked the second win of the season for Earnhardt, whose other win came earlier this year at Talladega. The victory was Earnhardt's 10th at a restrictor-plate track in his career.
The race didn't go green until 11:42 p.m. ET, far beyond the 8:10 p.m. scheduled green flag. Consider it was already Sunday night and the limited crowd (only 50,000 seats were available for this race because of construction), not to mention it being the first Cup race for NBC and NASCAR having set a Wednesday test for Kentucky Speedway, NASCAR opted to start the race much later than it normally would.
That didn't bother Earnhardt, who led 96 of the 161 laps, including the final 55 laps. He adeptly held off Denny Hamlin and Jimmie Johnson during a green-white-checkered finish. Johnson ended up second, with Hamlin third -- as he was spinning across the finish line after getting a push from Kevin Harvick.
Dillon got collected in the melee and was sent airborne. He finished seventh.
"It was real frightening," Earnhardt said. "I was on the verge of tears. ... The racing doesn't matter anymore."
Earnhardt, whose father was killed on the final lap of the 2001 Daytona 500, said he didn't know what could be done to avoid such an accident. He said he understands the dangers of racing, and thought about his mortality when he had his concussions in 2012.
"If I had an opinion, I would certainly give you my opinion," Earnhardt said. "It's just a product of going 200 miles an hour.
"These cars are going fast and when you put them in an odd, rare circumstance like that, they are going to go up in the air."
Though Earnhardt dominated, many potential competitors had misfortune throughout the race.
Kyle Busch, coming off the win last week at Sonoma Raceway, wrecked on Lap 17, slapping the wall in a one-car incident. He fell two laps down but was back on the lead lap in about 40 laps after getting the free pass available to the first car one lap down at the time of caution.
Every point for Busch is critical as he tries to claw his way into the top 30 in order to make the Chase for the Sprint Cup. He ended up 17th.
Danica Patrick was involved in three accidents, including one that sent her to the garage with 32 laps remaining.
Three crashes of at least seven cars didn't only take out or wound strong cars, they also put drivers not normally in contention having an eye on the victory.
With 30 laps remaining, Paul Menard was second, followed by Trevor Bayne, Clint Bowyer, David Ragan and Casey Mears. Sam Hornish Jr. and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. also were in the top 10. But by the time the race was over, the highest finisher among those drivers was Bayne, who also was collected in the last-lap crash and finished ninth.
While those were strong runs, what this night would be remembered for, in addition to the crash, was the long rain delay in addition to the introduction of a new television partner and a broadcast booth that included former driver Jeff Burton and crew chief Steve Letarte.
Letarte, who had guided Earnhardt as a crew chief for four years, handed those reins over to Greg Ives after last season.
Ives kept Earnhardt calm throughout the night -- not that he had to. Ives' work was done well before the weekend started as he brought a great car, one that was the fastest in practice, which allowed Earnhardt to capture the pole when rain washed out qualifying Saturday.
That fast car gave Earnhardt confidence late in the race. And he proved he has retained significant traits that he has displayed throughout his career: Prowess to perform on restrictor-plate tracks and the ability to function in the wee hours of the morning as the race ended at 2:41 a.m.
"This car is the one we won Talladega with," Earnhardt said. "It's going to get retired one of these days, hopefully we get to keep using it.
"Hopefully we get to keep using it, hopefully the boss man doesn't put it in the barn yet."