SPARTA — It could have been NASCAR's worst-case scenario: the No. 3 car — of all cars — flipping and crashing on the last turn of the last lap at Daytona International Speedway, pieces of its exterior and mechanical innards torn away as it hit the catch fence and tumbled to the track only to be clipped by another out-of-control machine.
Yet, the man who should be most scarred, physically and emotionally, by what transpired in the early morning hours this past Monday started moving on about as soon as he realized he could indeed move. He has spent the week listening to many marvel over the fact he is a.) alive and b.) relatively unaffected.
And, believe it or not, he really would just like to get back in a car and down to the business of racing again this weekend.
For terrible and wonderful reasons this week, Austin Dillon has been the face of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series as it heads to Kentucky Speedway for the track's fifth Quaker State 400. His horrifying last-lap crash in the Coke Zero 400 at Daytona in which he remarkably walked away with only bruises left all who witnessed the carnage chilled, with his fellow drivers — particularly race winner Dale Earnhardt Jr. — most disturbed by what they saw.
Though it must be in a driver's makeup to put the inevitable wrecks they endure in a psychological box and move on, Dillon's mental resiliency has been its own source of wonderment. Within minutes of climbing out of what was left of his No. 3 Chevrolet for Richard Childress Racing, he proclaimed himself ready to take on the bumps that pepper the Kentucky Speedway tri-oval.
"I feel pretty comfortable. I think when you take a crash like that and you're as healthy as I feel, you feel pretty confident in the safety equipment around you that you are ready to go out there and run fast," Dillon said outside his hauler Friday. "I've been pushing through it (the crash) pretty quick, just getting to the next track. I think it's just what you grow up in as far as you have to be tough in this sport with a lot of ups and downs and you have to be able to ride them out.
"It's just a mentality that I have as a driver. I think all the drivers do, that they don't want to get out of their car. And if I was shaken, I promise you, I wouldn't be getting in that car."
However, the troubling image of Dillon's wreck has prompted fans and pundits to question what, if any, changes NASCAR can make to prevent such airborne incidents and whether improvements to the catch fence are also on the horizon. Thursday night's Camping World Truck Series race at Kentucky Speedway kept the issue in play as driver Ben Kennedy was involved in a wreck that saw his truck lift off the ground and resulted in damage to the catch fence in Turn 1.
Dillon doesn't argue there aren't wrongs for NASCAR to fix. He also pointed to the fact he was going stir crazy waiting out the rain at Kentucky Speedway on Friday instead of sitting in a hospital as an example of what the sport has gotten right.
"I feel really blessed to be walking and racing here this weekend," he said. "It's just very special, and things could have gone a hundred different ways right there, but they went the right way.
"A lot of things have innovated to make everybody still safe today. We're obviously going to probably enhance more safety after this, and we'll keep developing as our sport grows. And I think NASCAR has got the people there to do that."
What type of racing will transpire on the Sparta oval Saturday night has been another topic of debate this week.
A new rules package aimed at reducing downforce will be used for the Quaker State 400, a package that theoretically will favor drivers like six-time Series champion Jimmie Johnson who prefer a looser handling car.
With rain canceling Cup qualifying Friday and washing the rubber off the track, how the cars handled in final practice and how they perform in race conditions may be wildly different.
"The car has less grip and ... if you get into a slide, it's going to take longer to recover and it takes more skill in those situations than it does car performance," said defending race winner Brad Keselowski, who also won the Quaker State 400 in 2012. "We're of the opinion that we would like to dictate the winners and losers of the race based on driver talent. So this package is definitely leaning toward having that possibility."