Bumper-to-bumper racing leads to wild backstretch wreck
Updated: Monday February 19, 2001 8:32 AM
By John Donovan, CNNSI.com
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- A lot of people around Daytona International Speedway saw this coming. They predicted The Big One.
And Sunday, just 25 laps from the finish, it happened.
"Accidents are inevitable," said driver John Andretti, "when drivers are reaching to their limits."
Andretti and 18 other cars -- almost half the field running at the time in the 43rd Daytona 500 -- were involved in a hellacious backstretch melee, a wreck that sent at least one driver to the hospital and changed the face of the self-proclaimed Super Bowl of stock car racing.
It was a horrible wreck but it was not the worst of the day. That came just a few laps later, just yards from the finish line, when Dale Earnhardt's No. 3 Chevrolet hit the wall after clipping the car of Sterling Marlin.
Earnhardt, the sport's most popular driver and perhaps the most famous in NASCAR history, had to be cut from the car and was pronounced dead at a local hospital minutes later. He was 49.
Up to the point of the first wreck, the 200-lap race was just as advertised. It was closely run, with a lot of lead changes among a lot of different drivers. That was made possible, mainly, by NASCAR's decision to make aerodynamic changes to the cars designed to spice up the racing.
As the race wore on and the finish approached, drivers became more tightly packed and pushed harder for the lead.
"This is the Daytona 500," Andretti said. "We were getting close to the end of it. And everyone wants to win.
"[The drivers] are willing to up the risk level."
Someone, though, went too far when Robby Gordon appeared to pop Ward Burton on the backstretch at the 2.5-mile track. He spun into Tony Stewart and all hell broke loose.
Stewart smacked into the wall, went airborne and smashed down onto the top of the car of Bobby Labonte, the 2000 Winston Cup Champion. After that, it was cars skidding and smashing and smoking. Labonte's car briefly caught fire.
"It's not very much fun when you see a 3,400-pound car fixin' to land on your head," Labonte said.
The wreck brought out a red flag and knocked most of the cars involved out of the race. It also sent Stewart to the hospital, where he was later released.
Just laps later, Michael Waltrip took the lead. He led the last 17 laps in winning his first Winston Cup race.
NASCAR no doubt now will take another look at the aerodynamics package they implemented to see if, indeed, they are making things too even. The cars raced much closer so a small bump, or an abrupt move, or even a strong wind change in the air around the cars could prove catastrophic.
That's exactly what happened on the backstretch.
"It's unfortunate. With the rules, it's great racing," said Jeff Gordon, also knocked from the race in the wreck. "But one little mistake, that's what's gonna happen."