More than two dozen fans were injured Saturday when Larson’s car sailed into the fence on the final lap of the Nationwide Series race and debris — including a tire — flew into the grandstands. Larson was uninjured, but many fans wondered if the severity of the accident would shake the nerves of the 20-year-old NASCAR rookie.
Not a chance.
“I’ve been in some really bad wrecks. I’m sure I’ll have more throughout my career,” Larson said in a telephone interview Tuesday. “I know crashing is part of the risk we take being race car drivers. It happens. I’m not emotionally (upset), that wreck doesn’t make me nervous.”
Larson, a development driver for Chip Ganassi Racing who has been praised as the next big superstar by the likes of Tony Stewart, Jeff Gordon and Kasey Kahne, will be back in the Nationwide car this weekend at Phoenix International Raceway. He is also scheduled to run a USAC race Friday night at Canyon Speedway Park.
After pulling out of a Saturday night face in Ocala, Fla., after the wreck at Daytona — “I wanted to be respectful to the fans who were still in the hospital. I didn’t think it would be right to go have fun while they were hurting,” he said — Larson is eager to get back in the car.
The Daytona wreck, after all, wasn’t even the worst of his career. Although it looked awful, and the front-end of Larson’s car was sheared off, his engine was wedged in a hole in the fence — Larson believes his accident in a midget car at Eldora Speedway last September was worse: His car flipped after hitting the wall and was hit broadside by another car.
“Off the top of my head, that wreck at Eldora hurt more and was just as scary. I almost had a car come in my cockpit,” Larson said.
Still, last Saturday’s wreck, in Larson’s debut Nationwide Series race, was the first time his car has ripped a fence and disintegrated so badly. He said he only thought his car had gone upside down, and he wasn’t aware he’d hit the fence until he saw the wreckage.
“It happened so fast, I kind of thought I’d gone upside down so I was not expecting to see half my car gone,” Larson said. “I wasn’t expecting to see my engine caught up in the fence. So I was definitely in some shock when I got out of the car and saw it torn apart. I’ve never had an accident like that where I’d got caught up in the fence, so that was a little different. Kind of a freak deal.”
Among the issues NASCAR is researching from Saturday’s crash is why Larson’s car disintegrated the way it did when it hit the fence.
Seven people with crash-related injuries remained hospitalized in Daytona Beach in stable condition, Halifax Health spokesman Byron Cogdell said Tuesday morning. Also Tuesday, an Orlando law firm said three fans injured in the accident have retained its services.
Larson, meanwhile, is a little disappointed the Nationwide accident and an incident with C.E. Falk III in the “Battle at the Beach” race are the two lasting memories of his Daytona debut.
Larson opened Speedweeks with a second-place finish in the ARCA race, his first ever event at Daytona. But the buzz around him turned negative two days later when he spun Falk on the final lap to win the Whelen All-American Series Late Model race.
Larson was criticized for the move on Twitter by several top-name Sprint Cup Series drivers, and fans also lashed out at the young driver. He said Tuesday he has mixed feelings about the backlash.
“I got in the back of him and spun him coming to the checkers, which was not very nice, and I got a lot of criticism for that and people lost a lot of respect for me for that,” Larson said. “I care because people who are huge backers of me and said I’m the greatest driver ever, now one incident and all of a sudden I am the worst race car driver ever. That’s not how I race. But I watched videos, a little bit of races at Bowman-Gray, to get prepared and it seemed like every video I watched if the guy in second place was close, they won.
“I did what I thought I had to do to win the race. Looking back, I made a mistake in how I went about it. I wouldn’t go back and not try to win the race, but I would probably do something a little different.”
If he really had a do-over on Daytona, though, Larson would want the talk to be about how well he was running in the Nationwide race before the final accident, and how he ran in six different cars in seven days. He won twice, counting a victory in a midget race at New Smyrna.
“It was definitely an up and down Speedweeks, but I ran six different race cars and not many people get to do that in their career. I got to do it in a week-and-a-half,” Larson said.