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Dale Earnhardt Jr. wins at Daytona, Austin Dillon gets airborne

A wild Daytona race saw Dale Earnhardt Jr. win, while Austin Dillon flew into the catch fence at the start/finish line.

Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s dominating victory early Monday morning at Daytona International Speedway was overshadowed by the mayhem that broke out behind him when Austin Dillon flew into the front stretch catch fence, scattering parts into the grandstands as the Coke Zero 400 concluded.

Dillon struck the fencing just past the start/finish line so violently it separated the engine block completely away from the No. 3 car, which laid on the track smoldering. Track workers and crew members from various teams arrived quickly on the scene to extract the 25-year-old from the upside-down car.

Dillon emerged seemingly unscathed, raising his hands to the crowd. He was then transported to an on-site medical facility where he was released with some bruising on his forearm and tailbone.

Thirteen spectators in the grandstand were looked at for injuries, Daytona president Joie Chitwood said. Of the 13 evaluated, eight declined medical care, with four receiving treatment at the track. One fan was taken to Halifax Medical Center in stable condition where they were treated and released.

"Just thank the good Lord for taking care of me and for what NASCAR has done to make the sport this much safer," Dillon said. "I just hope everybody in the stands is all right. That is the next biggest concern. Just praying for everybody and glad the good Lord looked out for me tonight."

The crash occurred when Denny Hamlin, running just behind Earnhardt, got a tap from Kevin Harvick and spun in front of a large pack of cars running side-by-side just past the start/finish as the checkered flag waved.

As Hamlin veered back up the track he clipped Dillon, propelling him towards the outside wall and launching him over other cars and into the catch fence.

"(Hamlin) got turned by (Harvick) across the start/finish line and I thought the race was going to be over right there," Dillon said. "We were almost there and I was just pushing (Jeff Gordon) and the next thing I knew was that I was looking at my roof for a long time."

Earnhardt, who led a race-high 97 laps, saw the wreck develop in his mirror just after winning for the second time in 2015. Jimmie Johnson finished second, with Hamlin third. Stewart-Haas Racing teammates Harvick and Kurt Busch placed fourth and fifth, respectively.

"That scared the hell out of me, I will be honest with you," Earnhardt said. "I saw the whole thing happen. ... That was terrifying to watch.  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."

Dillon's wreck was similar to when Kyle Larson went airborne during an Xfinity Series in February 2013, tearing down a section of the front stretch catch fence. Larson escaped injury, but over 20 spectators were hurt by debris that flew into the grandstands.

Following Larson's accident, NASCAR and Daytona officials reexamined how to better strengthen the fencing designed to prevent cars from flying into the grandstands. Hamlin credited NASCAR for its efforts after Monday's incident.

"It looks like (the fencing) kept the car in the race track, which is good," Hamlin said. "I think NASCAR has done a great job and this track has done a good job of stepping up. Anytime you get these cars turned around backwards at these speeds there's going to be lift and we're going to get these cars in the air, it's just part of physics. I think everything did its job there."

Multi-car wrecks are commonplace at Daytona and Talladega Superspeedway, NASCAR's two tracks where restrictor-plates limit airflow into the engine to decrease horsepower and slow speeds.

A byproduct is nearly every car runs virtually the same speed in tightly formed packs and little separation amongst the field. And when an accident does occur it leaves drivers with no time to react, often turning a single-car incident into something much more severe.

Gordon described the style of racing where cars slam bumpers at high speeds as something out of a "video game." It was a comparison Dillon agreed with.

"It definitely is a video game," Dillon said. "With three (laps) to go you are just going to push somebody until the end of the race. It's wreckers or checkers. It's like Talladega Nights out there. So it takes a lot of confidence and just staying into the gas is tough.

"It is a tough sport and it's what racing is about and it is why NASCAR has been here for so long."

The final lap crash was the fourth crash involving seven or more cars Sunday night in a race postponed three hours, 34 minutes due to heavy rain and not started until 11:42 p.m. ET.

Daytona was the site of the last fatality in a NASCAR touring division race when Dale Earnhardt Sr. was killed on the final lap of the 2001 Daytona 500. The death of the seven-time Cup Series spurred a safety movement within stock car racing as NASCAR mandated all drivers wear head-and-neck restraint devices and closed-faced helmets, and tracks install SAFER barriers on all outside walls in the turns.

Dillon is the grandson of Richard Childress, Earnhardt's longtime car owner.

"We are going to have to make this racing even more safe," Dillon said. "We are running 200 mph and pushing each other around out there and it's just bound to happen. No matter how safe we can make the sport, when you are going that amount of speed, things happen."