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'Awful' crash, Confederate battle flags mar landmark NASCAR race

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David Graham/AP

(Read caption) Dale Earnhardt Jr., front right, takes the checker flag to win a NASCAR Sprint Cup series auto race as Denny Hamlin (11) gets turned sideways in the beginning of a multi-car crash on the final lap at Daytona International Speedway, Monday, in Daytona Beach, Fla.

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One of NASCAR’s most dangerous and most popular races of the year began with a rain delay last night and ended early this morning with a horrific crash that injured five fans.

The checkered flag had already been waved, signaling Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s victory at the Coke Zero 400, when Austin Dillon’s car went airborne, sailing upside down into the fence and then whirling back onto the track. The car was mangled and on its roof when it was then hit hard by Brad Keselowski. By the time it was over the car was ripped in half, its engine torn out.

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Five spectators were treated for injuries when wreckage flew into the crowd. One was taken to the hospital in stable condition.

Mr. Earnhardt watched the whole crash in his rearview mirror as he crossed the finish line at the Daytona International Speedway in Daytona Beach, Fla.

“Oh my God, that looked awful,” he yelled into his radio.

Mr. Dillon was able to walk away from the crash with only minor injuries. He was evaluated and released from Daytona’s infield care center, and he told The Associated Press he only had a bruised arm and tailbone.

“I am just going to be really sore,” he said.

Joie Chitwood III, president of Daytona International Speedway, said that crews checked 13 people in the grandstands. Eight of them declined treatment. Speaking in a post-race interview, Mr. Chitwood said he was proud of the safety initiatives in place at the race, including the catch-fence designed to protect spectators from crash debris.

“We’ll take this situation, we’ll learn from it, we’ll analyze it, and we’ll round up our engineering team and see if there’s any additional things we can learn to get better the next time,” he said, according to ABC News.

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Rich Schellhase – who was sitting near Turn 1, where the crash occurred – told the station that he’d “never seen anything like that.”

“That catch-fence was just gone, it was just this huge hole,” said Mr. Schellhase.

The crash was eerily reminiscent of a 2001 crash at the same track that killed Dale Earnhardt, Earnhardt Jr.’s father and a seven-time Sprint Cup champion, on the final lap of the Daytona 500. Another crash in 2013 saw Kyle Larson’s car sail into the fence, sending debris into the stands and injuring 28 spectators.

NASCAR have been adding safety measures to races for decades. Daytona International Speedway is one of two courses to require the use of restrictor plates in cars. The plates limit engine power and lower top speed. Daytona, along with Talladega Superspeedway, are considered the two fastest tracks on the NASCAR circuit with top speeds reaching the 190 miles per hour range. NASCAR’s Sprint Cup and Xfinity Series have used restrictor plates at both tracks since 1988. The downside of these safety limits is that it often leads to the formation of large “packs” of cars, as they compensate for the diminished engine power by drafting behind each other.

As fans and drivers struggled to process the crash early Monday morning, driver Ryan Newman criticized NASCAR and restrictor plate racing. 

“NASCAR got what they wanted. That’s the end of it,” said Mr. Newman, in an interview with USA TODAY. “Cars getting airborne, unsafe drivers, same old stuff. They just don’t listen.

A rain delay of 3 hours, 34 minutes meant that the race didn’t begin until 11:42 p.m. on Sunday night. Earnhardt Jr. crossed the finish line at 2:41 a.m. Monday morning.

Tony Stewart, winner of the similarly-delayed 2005 race that ended at 1:42 a.m., grumbled into his radio as he passed the carnage at the end of this morning’s finish.

“Somebody please remind me how much Lap 2 pays again?” he said.

The race was already a point of controversy, as Chitwood announced on Tuesday that the Confederate battle flag would not be banned from the track for the race, despite calls from NASCAR chairman Brian France to ban the flag from all NASCAR events. Chitwood said there was not enough time to plan and enforce a ban. Instead the speedway offered an exchange program where fans could trade a flag for the American flag.

“At this point, we cannot ban anything and we cannot change our policy,” he told The Associated Press (AP) on Tuesday, five days before the race.

The sport is immensely popular in the South, but the Confederate flag is under nationwide scrutiny after a white man murdered nine black churchgoers in Charleston, South Carolina, in mid-June. South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley has since called for the flag to be removed from the state house grounds.

Earnhardt Jr. quickly came out in support of Gov. Haley’s stance, and Mr. France’s calls for the flag to be banned from NASCAR events.

“I stand behind NASCAR’s stance to remove it,” he told the AP last month. “I think it’s offensive to an entire race, it really does nothing for anybody to be there flying. It belongs in the history books, that’s about it.”

This report includes material from the Associated Press.