Kyle Larson (32) slides along the wall after hitting the catch fence as Eric McClure (14) goes low after the cars were involved in a multi-car crash on the final lap of the NASCAR Nationwide Series auto race at Daytona International Speedway on Saturday
ABINGDON — It was a bittersweet day for Abingdon racer Eric McClure, who earned his first career top-10 NASCAR Nationwide Series finish Saturday in a race shrouded by a wreck that injured 33 fans.
The 34-year-old veteran Nationwide driver was racing toward a career-best finish in the DRIVE4COPD 300 when a 12- car, last-lap crash occurred in front of him.
“It was so surreal that after 200 starts I finally finished in the top 10, and really in the lead pack all day,” McClure said. “And then you find out the car went into the stands and people were hurt, and that just changes everything. It puts everything into perspective, and the biggest thing is we were praying that they were going to be OK.
“I can’t help but think I was part of that, and that’s a pretty heartbreaking thing to realize. Finding out today that they’re going to make it helps, but at the end of the day that’s certainly more important than a race.”
During the last-lap wreck, Kyle Larson’s car went airborne and struck the front- stretch catch fencing, shearing off the front half of the car and sending large pieces of the vehicle through the fencing.
Daytona Beach Police said 17 fans were hurt, with two suffering major injuries, and 11 were sent to Halifax Medical Center, with one adult in surgery with head trauma and listed in critical condition.
The other major injury was to a 14-year-old. Six fans were transported to Florida Memorial Hospital with minor injuries, and were expected to be treated and released.
McClure was back home in Abingdon on Sunday morning watching a recording of the end of the race when he spoke to the Times-News.
His eighth-place finish came in his 200th career Nationwide start. It was his first career top 10 in the series — his previous best was a 15th-place finish last year in Kansas.
McClure credited spotter Stevie Reeves for getting him through two late wrecks Saturday. The last- lap wreck was immediately preceded by a 14-car crash with four laps to that McClure also barely missed.
McClure ran in the top 10 most of the race and actually took the lead under green on lap 99. From beginning to end, it was his best race since joining the Nationwide tour in 2003.
On TV it might have appeared that McClure had the best seat in the house for the horrific last-lap crash that unfolded right in front of him. He said he knew it was a bad wreck, but he didn’t know how bad until he got back into the garage area.
“I didn’t know anything went into the stands until the race was over,” McClure said. “I was behind a black car, and we were coming to the flag. We were in the middle, and (Reeves) said, ‘Wreck, wreck,’ and I started to see the smoke up front.”
Added McClure: “By the time I got up to it, I was driving blind. Stevie said, ‘The middle is clear, come on, come on.’ I didn’t know if we crossed the line. The only thing I could see was the 99 car was up on his nose, and he just landed on the front of my car.”
McClure said he concurs with a lot of the statements other drivers made after the wreck about the risk drivers face compared with the safety of fans.
“We absorb a lot of risk when we do this, and we’re prepared for that,” McClure said. “But when people come to a race, they expect to have a good time, and the idea that they may be in danger never crosses their mind. It’s unfortunate that we can have an accident like that. I don’t know what can be done but I’m sure NASCAR will look at every avenue.
“It just makes you feel terrible to know spectators were injured in one of our wrecks.”