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Daytona 500 gets green light despite horrific accident

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The Daytona 500 will go off as planned.

Daytona International Speedway President Joie Chitwood said the track will "be ready to go racing" in time for Sunday's Daytona 500. The green flag will drop a day after a horrific accident injured fans and drivers, and damaged several safety features.

At least 30 spectators were injured Saturday when large chunks of debris, including a tire, sailed into the grandstands when a car flew into the fence on a frightening last-lap accident in the second-tier Nationwide Series race.

Chitwood said he doesn't anticipate moving any fans from those affected seats for Sunday's race. He said the fence that separates the track from the seats will be repaired. The grandstands where fans were injured are about 200 feet from the start-finish line.

This will be the third time in four years the track has needed major repairs on Daytona 500 weekend. The 2010 race was interrupted for more than two hours because of a pothole on the track. Juan Pablo Montoya slammed into a jet dryer in last year's race that caused a raging inferno that stopped the event for two hours.

"We're very confident that we'll be ready for tomorrow's event with the 55th running of the Daytona 500," Steve O'Donnell, NASCAR's senior vice president of racing operations, said. "As with any of these incidents, we'll conduct a thorough review and work closely with the tracks as we do with all our events, learn what we can and see what we can apply in the future."

Chitwood said there where wasn't enough time to replace the crossover gate, which allows fans to walk from the grandstands to the infield.

He stressed proper safety protocols were met.

"Our security maintained a buffer that separates the fans from the fencing area," he said. "With the fencing being prepared tonight to our safety protocols, we expect to go racing tomorrow with no changes."

NASCAR and track officials did not know how much fencing would need to replaced or repaired. Same with the impact-absorbing soft walls.

But the track's recent history with expediting repairs for the 500 could only help the race start as scheduled.

"You try to prepare for as much as you can," NASCAR spokesman Kerry Tharp said. "You also take away and learn from every incident."

The accident happened the day before the Daytona 500, the season-opening race in the Sprint Cup series and NASCAR's biggest race. The horror in the stands marred what had been a week of celebration that kicked off with Danica Patrick becoming the first woman to win a pole in the premier series.

Wreckage flew into the upper deck and emergency crews treated fans on both levels. There were five stretchers that appeared to be carrying fans out, and a helicopter flew overhead. A forklift was used to pluck driver Kyle Larson's engine out of the fence, and there appeared to be a tire in the stands.

Across the track, fans pressed against a fence and used binoculars trying to watch. Reporters were threatened to leave the area.

Hours after the wreck, the fence was down and soft walls were being repaired as TV news helicopters hovered overhead.

Otherwise, it was business as usual as the track underwent its makeover for "The Great American Race." The stages for driver introductions and the pre-race concert were already in place, as were the generators on pit road. The Daytona 500 logo was being painted on the grass and other track logs got a touch up. If not for the steady buzz from the welding done on the fence, it would look like any other late Saturday night before the Daytona 500.

Fans seated in the area of the wreck uploaded videos on YouTube that showed fans feeing in horror and covering their heads as tires and an engine hurled their way. Most of the videos were soon removed from YouTube.

The scene was similar to a 2009 race at Talladega Superspeedway — Daytona's sister track in Alabama — when Carl Edwards' car went sailing into the fence on a last-lap accident.

O'Donnell said NASCAR and track officials would continue to strengthen safety standards, as needed.

"We'll evaluate the fencing and see if there's anything we can learn from where gates are," O'Donnell said. "I think we need to take the time to really study it and see what we can improve on, if we can. Certainly, the safety of our fans is first and foremost and we'll make that happen."

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