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Ryan Blaney was seven years old in February 2001, the day Dale Earnhardt shockingly died on the last lap of the Daytona 500. His dad, Dave, competed in that Great American Race. 

On Saturday night, many fans had flashbacks to that tragic day 22 years ago when the Team Penske driver was involved in a crash that was eerily similar to Earnhardt’s in how and where it happened, with the No. 12 violently slamming into the outside wall near Turn 4. However, this accident, thankfully, had a very different outcome. 

Dale Earnhardt violently hits outside wall going into Turn 4 at Daytona in 2001

Dale Earnhardt had the perfect seat on the final lap of the 2001 Daytona 500, watching his son and DEI driver Michael Waltrip battling for the win in the final trip around the 2.5-mile superspeedway. Unfortunately, Senior never saw who won.

That’s because going around the track between Turns 3 and 4, the left rear of the No. 3 car made contact with the nose of Sterling Marlin in the No. 40 car. Earnhardt’s car wobbled to the left before making a hard right and shooting up the track, where he collected Ken Schrader before a hard impact into the outside wall. 

The two severely damaged cars rode on the wall through Turn 4, slid down the track onto the apron before coming to rest on the infield grass. 

Ryan Blaney violently hits outside wall coming out of Turn 4

Ryan Blaney had a fast car at the Coke Zero Sugar 400 on Saturday night in Daytona. On the final lap of Stage 2, the Penske car ran up front with former teammate Brad Keselowski directly behind him and rookie Ty Gibbs on his outside. 

Coming out of Turn 4, Christopher Bell, who was running directly behind Gibbs, nudged his teammate, which sent the No. 54 car to the left into the right rear of the No. 12 car. Blaney never saw it coming and the contact turned his car and shot him straight up the track for a violent impact into the outside wall. Gibbs also followed for a big hit. 

The slow-motion replay showed the SAFER Barrier dramatically bending and absorbing the impact. After the crash, Blaney made the mandatory visit to the infield care center and then visited with reporters.

“It was a big hit. I’m happy it had a SAFER Barrier on it,” he said. “Yeah, that was large. Big testament of the new front clips. That would have hurt a lot more if we didn’t have the new front clip on it. So that’s a positive about that. Still pretty hard.”    

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Dale Earnhardt’s death was the last one in NASCAR. That clean record since hasn’t happened by accident. To NASCAR’s credit, the organization has made numerous safety changes through the years, including the use of the HANS device, the addition of SAFER Barriers, and various modifications to the car.

However, since the introduction of the Next Gen car in 2022, drivers have justifiably complained about concerns over various safety issues with the new design, which resulted in multiple drivers suffering concussions. The sanctioning body has consistently been making updates to the car, including the one mentioned by Blaney, which came as a result of a massive crash between Ryan Preece and Kyle Larson earlier this year at Talladega.

On Saturday night, Blaney’s hit, which was so similar to Earnhardt’s more than two decades earlier, shows just how far NASCAR has come. But, as any NASCAR official and driver will tell you, striving to make the cars safer will never stop.

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