This side of 2000, NASCAR’s popularity has waned considerably outside of the southern United States where the sport began; liking NASCAR has become almost taboo in a way. Monday night however, America’s attention seemed to turn back to NASCAR at the conclusion of the rain-delayed 2020 Daytona 500, as veteran driver Ryan Newman appeared to be fighting for his life.
I don’t usually watch NASCAR, but every year I end up getting sucked back into watching the 500. Growing up, NASCAR was the family sport at our house. My dad was obsessed with the sport, and 1990s and early 2000s diecast models lined the shelves in our basement. He was so obsessed, my name was inspired by his favorite driver during the late 90s, Dale Jarrett. Given my history with the sport, I’ve had a tough time completely separating myself from caring about it.
Yet again Monday night I found myself watching the NASCAR broadcast, expecting it to be an ordinary Daytona 500. The night would later turn into a nightmare, bringing back the awful feeling most NASCAR fans haven’t felt since 2001.
On the final lap of 200, Ryan Newman, driver of the no. 6 Ford Mustang, took the lead from Denny Hamlin, driver of the no. 11 Toyota Camry, thanks to a push from Ryan Blaney, driver of the no. 12 Ford Mustang.
Newman and Blaney came out of turn four with Hamlin close behind them. Coming through the tri-oval ahead of the finish line, Blaney appeared to get loose as Hamlin bumped him from behind, causing him to go low. Newman went low to block Blaney, likely thinking Blaney was making a move to pass, but Newman got loose and spun off the front bumper of Blaney’s car and slammed into the outside wall, flipping on his roof almost instantly.
Newman slid on his roof for about 100 feet before Corey Lajoie, driver of the no. 32 Ford Mustang, with nowhere to go and no time to stop, hit Newman’s car, sending him barrel rolling into the air before landing back on his roof and sliding past the finish line down the front stretch.
I’ve seen similar wrecks like this when watching NASCAR races. Sure it was a bad one, as cars nowadays don’t end up flipping all too often, but the cars are so safe that everyone walks out under their own power most of the time.
Hamlin had won the race, and was beginning his celebration. The camera kept cutting back to Newman’s destroyed Mustang. Fuel began spilling out of the back and a fire had started, but that was far from any concern I had — there was no movement from inside the cockpit.
When the crash was played back in slow motion, it became pretty apparent this crash was different from others in recent years. When Lajoie hit Newman, he hit him on the driver’s side of his roof, appearing to cave it in slightly. Sparks flew everywhere inside the cockpit as it slid down the front stretch.
Emergency crews and pit crew members were on the scene immediately to put out the fire, huddling around the car to check on Newman. For several minutes as the broadcast began to wrap up, broadcasters Mike Joy and Jeff Gordon didn’t say much about Newman, likely because they didn’t know what to say. It began to feel like an eerily similar situation that occurred at Daytona 19 years ago, when Dale Earnhardt died on the last lap of the 2001 Daytona 500. Joy was in the booth that day too, and Gordon was in the race as a driver.
The broadcast ended, and Newman was still in the car. I instantly went on to Twitter to see if there was any more news on Newman’s condition. All I could find were pictures of the crews putting tarps up around the scene to block the fans’ ability to see the scene — not a good sign. It took ten minutes for the emergency crews to get Newman out of the car and on his way to the hospital.
NASCAR twitter was active as fans, drivers and media members offered their thoughts and prayers to Newman and his family. No one knew his condition, not even his team, Roush-Fenway Racing.
Then something happened that surprised me: all of America seemed to reach out on social media. It didn’t matter if it was a sports page that never touched on NASCAR, athletes from a different sport, a random Facebook page unrelated to sports, politicians on Twitter, whoever. People from all over came together to support a man likely fighting for his life. It didn’t matter that he was an athlete from a sport that had become the butt of several jokes.
A few hours later, word finally broke that Newman was alive, with non-life threatening injuries, but in serious condition, in a statement released by NASCAR. By the next day, it was reported he was awake and talking with doctors and his family.
Although Newman walked out of the hospital Wednesday under his own power, I wouldn’t be surprised if he never completed another NASCAR race. He has a family with two young daughters that could’ve lost their father. Newman has been racing in the NASCAR Cup Series since 2002, making him one of the sport’s most seasoned veterans, due to the recent trend of drivers retiring much sooner than in years and decades past.
Newman has been critical of the cars’ safety features and pack racing in the past. He was involved in another accident at Daytona in 2003 when his no. 12 Dodge Intrepid, the same car that turned him Monday, barrel rolled through the infield and disintegrated. When NASCAR switched to the Car of Tomorrow in 2007, he lobbied for increased protection from the roll cage, with an extra bar being placed overhead. The bar later became known as the “Newman Bar,” which ironically likely saved his life Monday night.
Regardless of how Newman handles his career moving forward, it was great to see America come together to support this man. Sports seems to have a way of bringing people together, which I think is probably the best part about them. Unfortunately, sometimes it takes a tragedy for that to happen.