Daytona 500: Juan Pablo Montoya Crashes Into A Jet Dryer And Sets The Track On Fire In 2012

A group of people standing next to a fire
John Harrelson/Getty Images for NASCAR

Well we now have our final lineup for the Daytona 500.

After Kyle Larson and Alex Bowman took the top two spots during qualifying on Wednesday, the rest of the field was set last night during the twin 125 duel races, which were won by Brad Keselowski and Chris Buescher. And now, we just wait for the green flag to drop on the 64th annual Daytona 500 this Sunday.

But in the meantime, we’ve been looking back at some of the most memorable moments in the history of the Great American Race.

First we took it back to 1993, to “the Dale and Dale show” battle between Dale Earnhardt and Dale Jarrett. Then there was Dale Earnhardt’s only win in the Daytona 500 back in 1998, a victory that saw every crew member from every team line pit road to celebrate Dale’s big win.

Next we looked back at Dale Earnhardt’s gritty 1997 Daytona 500 performance, when he jumped out of the ambulance and finished the race after flipping his car. And finally, yesterday we threw it back to 2002 when Sterling Marlin pulled the head-scratching move of getting out of his car on the backstretch during a red flag and pulling out his fender after a wreck.

And today we’re looking back at one of the most bizarre moments in the 64 year history of the Daytona 500.

The year was 2012. Originally scheduled for Sunday, February 26, rain forced NASCAR to postpone the race until the next day.

The race finally went green at 7 PM on a Monday. But the odd start time for a Daytona 500 was just foreshadowing of the strange sequence of events that would take place late in the race.

On lap 157, a car blew an engine and spun in front of traffic, bringing out the race’s seventh caution flag. As the cars were running around the track at caution speed, Juan Pablo Montoya, who was piloting the #42 Target Chevrolet for Earnhardt Ganassi Racing, reported feeling a vibration in his car.

Montoya drove his car to pit road and his team checked under the car for the source of the problem but wasn’t able to find anything, so they sent him back out on the track.

But as he was entering turn three at near-race speed trying to catch up with the rest of the pack under the caution, whatever had been vibrating in Montoya’s car finally broke and he lost control of his ride.

The car whipped around on Montoya and spun up the track – and right into the back of a jet dryer that was cleaning the track. (If you’re not familiar with NASCAR’s jet dryers, they’re basically jet engines hooked up to trailers on the back of a truck, and they’re pulled around the track to blow off debris and also to dry the racing surface).

The impact caused a huge fireball to erupt from the jet dryer as Montoya’s car slid down the track and came to rest at the bottom of the turn. And it also sent all of the jet fuel from the dryer pouring on to the track.

To make matters worse, though, Terry Labonte then drove through the fuel that had soaked the track, and a spark from his car ignited the massive amounts of gasoline, engulfing the track – and the jet dryer – in massive flames.

(Luckily the driver of the jet dryer, Duane Barnes, had already been able to escape, and although he was taken to a local hospital for treatment, escaped with relatively minor injuries).

Track crews worked furiously to extinguish the giant inferno before it caused irreparable damage to the surface of the track and forced NASCAR to call the race prematurely. And after they were able to get the fire put out, the track crew then brought out a special cleaning agent to get the remainder of the fuel out of the surface of the track.

Just kidding, they brought out boxes of powdered Tide laundry detergent and washed the track down.

The entire episode caused an over two hour delay in the race. And while they waited, one driver gave us a real-time view of what was going on: Brad Keselowski whipped out his cell phone and started tweeting pictures from his racecar and updating us on how the car was handling.

NASCAR ultimately decided to put an end to drivers tweeting from their cars during red flags, banning cell phones from the cars later in the season.

Oh, and that wasn’t all that Keselowski was up to during the break: He also had a pretty epic footrace to the port-a-john with Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Montoya obviously wasn’t able to continue on in the race once it restarted, and afterwards he expressed his surprise about the bizarre incident:

“Something fell in the rear of the car and the car just spun into the jet dryer. I felt a vibration and came in. They looked at everything and everything was ok and I still told them ‘I think there is something broke’ and I was coming back into the pits and the car just spun by itself…

I’ve hit a lot of things—but a jet dryer?”

Even then-NASCAR President Mike Helton, who has been with the sport since 1994, said it was unlike anything he had ever seen:

“You would think after 65 years and running all the races that NASCAR has run … that you’ve seen about everything. You do think about, ‘Oh, my gosh, if that can happen, what else can happen?'”

After the race, it was determined that the damage to the burned section of the track was more extensive than previously thought, so the affected area was completely removed and resurfaced prior to NASCAR’s return to Daytona for the Pepsi 400 in July.

Oh, and as for the car that Montoya was driving that day? Well, the infamous “jet dryer car” now lives on Dale Earnhardt Jr’s property in his famous “racecar graveyard.”

That’s definitely one of the most unique pieces of NASCAR memorabilia – from one of the more bizarre moments in the sport’s history.

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