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Dale Earnhardt Jr.: Austin Dillon’s crash 'scared the s*** out of me’

Dale Earnhardt Jr. thought the worst when he saw Austin Dillon get airborne.

Chris Graythen/Getty Images

What should have been a moment of jubilation for Dale Earnhardt Jr., instead nearly brought him to tears for a far darker reason on Monday morning at Daytona International Speedway.

Just as Earnhardt claimed a dominant Coke Zero 400 victory, he looked in his rearview mirror and saw the horrifying sight of a car catapulting towards the front stretch catch fence. Who the driver was, Earnhardt was uncertain, as all he could see was the undercarriage.

"I was near tears," Earnhardt said. "I didn't even know who it is, but you just don't want to see nobody get hurt. It's awful. It's an awful feeling.

"I've never really seen a rollcage handle those catch fences very well. I just was very scared for whoever that was."

The driver Earnhardt saw take flight was Austin Dillon, who was in a gaggle of cars when Denny Hamlin broke loose and tagged Dillon's No. 3 Chevrolet. That contact shot Dillon up the track and into the fencing just past the start/finish line.

Miraculously, with the exception of a couple of bruises, Dillon emerged unscathed. But the large debris scattered throughout the grandstands inflicted minor injuries on five fans, including one who had to be transported to a local hospital, but was later treated and released.

"It scared the shit out of me," Earnhardt said.

He wasn't alone in thinking the worst. Jimmie Johnson, who finished second, admitted he shared similar thoughts.

"I'm shocked that Austin Dillon is even alive," Johnson said. "Just a frightening moment. I saw it in the mirror and I expected the worst when I came back around."

After Dillon's car hit the fencing, it came to a rest upside down. Quickly safety workers and crewmembers from various teams converged to check on his well-being. Personnel from Earnhardt's team were among those on the scene helping Dillon out of the wreckage. It was while watching the jumbrotron of the rescue, Earnhardt saw that Dillon was OK.

Dillon's accident was the second time in six Daytona races where a car got airborne and flew into the catch fence. In 2013, Kyle Larson had a similar looking crash that he walked away from, though more than 20 spectators were injured by debris.

"The fence and the cables, it's like a great cheese grater to a racecar and just tears it apart," Johnson said. "Unfortunately, all the energy with the turn on the front stretch as the car comes apart, the energy is carrying the debris out into the grandstands. And that's a scary thing."

Earnhardt felt the fencing did its job. As Dillon's car didn't enter the grandstand and a more tragic outcome was prevented.

"You've got to give the catch fence and NASCAR's innovation some of the credit for the fact that we don't have any real serious injuries," Earnhardt said.