- Brant James, Contributor, espnW.com
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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Tony Stewart drove through a cavalcade of wrecking race cars in the final few hundred feet Saturday to tie the late Dale Earnhardt's record of seven Nationwide Series wins at Daytona International Speedway.
Stewart's record will be overshadowed, however, by the scene that played out in the final moments of the 120-lap race. The front half of Kyle Larson's race car ripped off as it hit the catch fence, sending debris into the lower and upper decks, and injuring multiple fans.
The 12-car melee began when race leader Regan Smith attempted to block Brad Keselowski's attempt to detach from pushing and make a pass for a win as they exited Turn 4. Smith was turned sideways, and Sam Hornish Jr. hit Keselowski from behind. Larson nosed into the wall with Keselowski, and his car was lifted in the rear after being hit by Brian Scott. Larson went cartwheeling along the fence, shedding his front tires, engine and debris.
Both Smith and Keselowski voiced concern over fan injuries but were candid and analytical about the final sequence, with Smith saying, "You got to do what you got to do. It's the checkers at Daytona. It doesn't matter if it's a Nationwide race or an ARCA race. You want to win here. If I'm in the same position tomorrow [in the Daytona 500], I'll do the exact same thing again."
Keselowski said the block attempt was Smith's "right."
"And the chaos comes with it," he said. "I made the move and he blocked it, and we came together and started the chain of events that started that wreck."
The checkered-flag crash came just three laps after the race was red-flagged for 19 minutes, 52 seconds with just four laps remaining when a bobble by Michael Annett sent Austin Dillon into the wall, triggering a 13-car crash that sent Annett to a local hospital for observation. Jamie Dick had a brutally hard collision with the rear of Danny Efland's car, which was being held up by Kasey Kahne's sideways Chevrolet.
Smith led at the red flag, followed by Stewart. Hornish began working with Stewart immediately after the resumption, but Smith and Keselowski bore off and appeared in command until Smith made his block.
"They passed us at the right time. Sam did a great job of picking us up in Turn 3," Stewart said. "We got a huge run off of those guys off of 4.
"I'm sure the spotters were telling them we were coming to the bottom. They started moving to the top slowly. We knew when we got up there, we were going to run out of room. Our option was to go to the left. When we did, that's when they started spinning in front of us. Created a big pack of havoc behind us."
All seven of Stewart's Nationwide wins at Daytona have come in the February race. He has 14 starts here in NASCAR's second-tier series. Stewart led twice for three laps and won under caution. Hornish was second, followed by Alex Bowman, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Parker Kligerman.
Fans awaiting a celebration in Victory Lane turned to watch rescue workers attend to the injured, and regular festivities were canceled. Stewart said it was no time to celebrate.
"It's just like your fellow drivers. If you think one of your fellow drivers is injured, you just don't feel like you can celebrate," he said. "These fans are die-hard to this sport and the drivers. They come to watch a great show. The last thing you want to do is have any of them get caught up in a wreck that happens on the racetrack."
1dK. Lee Davis