It didn’t take long for more than a third of the field to be knocked out of Sunday afternoon’s rain-interrupted NASCAR Daytona 500. It was 13 laps, to be precise, when 16 cars crashed into each other between Turns 3 and 4 at Daytona International Speedway.
During the ensuing caution, long-anticipated rain and lightning swept over the speedway and the field, those rolling anyway, was brought to pit road and the race was red flagged.
With the recent increase in cars capable of being near the front, huge accidents like Sunday’s have become commonplace. In the famous 1976 Richard Petty-David Pearson last-lap crash in Turn 4, they were so far ahead that nobody was close to being involved. In the 1979 Daytona 500, similarly, Donnie Allison and Cale Yarborough wrecked nearing Turn 3 on the last lap, and nobody was close enough to be involved.
It was maybe 25 years ago when someone began speaking of the increasing number of multi-car Daytona and Talladega crashes with this simple phrase: “The Big One.” Most of them seem to come late in the race, when patience is thin, and recklessness sometimes overcomes good judgment.
Sunday’s lap-16 melee certainly qualified. It began innocently enough, when fifth-running Christopher Bell tried to help third-running Aric Almirola get a run on the inside. The “help” turned into contact, which sent Almirola abruptly up the track and to the right, where it slammed into second-running Alex Bowman on the outside.
With most of the 40-car field within a second or two of the front – where the contact erupted behind leader Kevin Harvick – it’s no surprise that only a handful of drivers got through unscathed. “We were getting pushed too hard too early,” said Almirola, who had won a 150-mile qualifying race on Thursday night. “We were in a fine position, sitting there, riding around in the top-two or top-three when (Bell) came with a big run and hit me really hard in a bad spot. It turned me to the right and tore up our race car and ended our Daytona 500 way too early.”
Bowman, the pole-winner, agreed with that assessment, but was stoic about it. “It looks like (Almirola) got turned sideways and I was the guy that got run into,” he said. “Obviously, we had a really fast Camaro, and the Chevrolets were working good together. Hopefully, a Chevy still ends up in Victory Lane. Hats off to Hendrick Motorsports for building some fast cars, and I hate that superspeedway racing works out that way sometimes. That’s just part of the game.”
Almirola and Bowman were involved before anyone else. A split-second later, the pack came piling into each other: Bell, Tyler Reddick, Jamie McMurray (in a one-off “unretirement” ride), Kurt Busch, Matt DiBenedetto, Martin Truex Jr., Erik Jones, William Byron, Ryan Blaney, David Ragan, Ryan Newman, Chris Buescher, Anthony Alfredo, and Daniel Suarez, in his first start for co-owners Justin Marks and rapper/Grand Marshal Pitbull.
Many of the teams were waiting for the red flag to lift before trying to make repairs and get back on the track. The only cars officially listed as “Out” during the delay were those of Newman, Almirola, Bowman, Suarez, Ragan, and Jones. Veteran Derrike Cope, a former Daytona 500 winner in a “comeback” ride, was eliminated in an unrelated incident several laps before.
For Newman, this latest “Big One” brought back memories of last year’s 500. In that one, he got turned into the outside wall coming for a top-5 finish at the checkered. That initial hard hit sent his Ford airborne, where Austin Dillon rammed it as it came down. Newman began a series of flips and tumbles that didn’t end until he landed upside-down near the end of pit road. The footage remains an oft-used staple among stock car racing’s most spectacular accidents.
“Somebody crashed in the outside row in front of me and I had nowhere to go and got hit from some place,” he said. “I had the wreck missed, but got hit from some place and that was the end of our day. I just feel bad about getting wrecked out of the Daytona 500 so early, but unfortunately that’s part of racing. I just wish we could have had some better results.”
Ragan, running a very limited Cup schedule with a mid-level team, was understandably upset at his misfortune. “It’s unfortunate to have a bunch of torn up race cars that early,” said Ragan, normally as calm and level-headed as anyone in the garage. “I’ve never met a driver who said, ‘I’m gonna start this 500-mile race and just be super-aggressive.’ We all talk about give and take and making it to the end, but it seems nobody does that once they get out there. It’s frustrating that everybody is pushing and shoving. I saw Bowman get turned, and whenever someone gets wrecked in the top-5 or top-6, it tears up a lot of cars.
And just think…. only 184 laps remain.
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