Ryan Newman’s wreck and health was all that mattered at the Daytona 500

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Denny Hamlin celebrated. Corey LaJoie delivered his typical quips.

That was before they knew. Before they were told that Ryan Newman was being taken straight to the hospital after a horrible crash involving Ryan Blaney and LaJoie, as Hamlin won the Daytona 500 coming to the finish on Monday night at Daytona International Speedway.

It was a somber situation. Newman wasn’t supposed to be carried off on a stretcher. That’s not the NASCAR everyone knows now. He’s supposed to get out of the car and wave to the crowd.

That NASCAR hasn’t had a fatality in its three national series since Dale Earnhardt Sr.’s death in the 2001 Daytona. 500 has conditioned fans and those in the industry that every wreck is survivable. That even the vicious hits don’t do more than bruise.

But everyone in the grandstands saw the reality, as Newman’s crushed car initially caught fire while upside-down. They saw safety workers hold up screens as they put him in an ambulance, which then sped to leave the track to Halifax Health Medical Center. Roush Fenway Racing said Monday night that the 42-year-old Newman was in serious condition with non-life-threatening injuries.

Few should say they felt surprised in seeing such an ugly wreck. If a driver wants to win at Daytona or Talladega, the right block at the right time is required. Drivers from behind the leader will get runs and the leader has a choice: Give up the position or try to block, get a push and launch forward. While frustrating to competitors, most view it as a necessary evil to win.

Newman threw a few blocks on Blaney, being turned just before the start-finish line. Newman’s car smashed into the wall, flipped upside-down and then LaJoie’s car plowed into his roof, lifting Newman’s car in the air again and sending him sliding in a shower of sparks with his wheels still pointed toward the sky.

“I kind of went low and he blocked that and so I was committed to pushing him to the win and have a Ford win it,” said Blaney, who edged Newman for the victory at Talladega last October. “I don’t know. We just got the bumpers hooked up wrong and I turned him.

“I hope he is all right. It looked pretty bad. … I don’t like saying that things just happen because I feel really bad about it.”

LaJoie was taken to the infield medical center and just had assumed that Newman was OK until being told of the accident.

“I was hoping he would kind of bounce off the fence to the left, but he didn’t and I hit him,” LaJoie said before seeing a replay. “I don’t know exactly where I hit him. … My car was on fire. My seat belts grabbed all sorts of areas, but it was a good day for us. I hope Ryan is OK.”

As LaJoie watched a replay of the wreck and saw what happened, he said, “Oh no. That’s not good.”

Hamlin had done burnouts before finding out there would be no interview on the frontstretch. Then he was told in victory lane that Newman’s injuries likely were serious.

“It’s a weird balance of excitement and happiness for yourself, but obviously someone’s health and their family is bigger than any win in any sport,” Hamlin said. “We’re just hoping for the best.”

This Daytona 500 ended with prayer for Newman, who owns 18 career wins and made his 656th career start on Monday night. Growing up as a sprint-car racer, Roger Penske brought the Indiana racer into NASCAR and they won a 2008 Daytona 500.

The dynamic of Newman being seriously injured at Daytona shouldn’t be lost by anyone. While some drivers might express safety concerns privately, Newman has never shied from the topic, especially advocating for NASCAR to run slower speeds at Daytona and Talladega, where drivers can turn laps of more than 200 miles an hour racing in a tight pack.

After a Talladega practice where he went 204 mph last year, Newman mentioned that NASCAR should run slower speeds because of the possibility of the cars turning over. NASCAR believes the lift-off speed is much higher than 204 mph when there is no impact with another car or barrier. But Newman’s car went hard into the wall, rebounding off the SAFER Barrier and turning upside-down.

To think if he had hit a concrete wall instead of the SAFER Barrier (a steel barrier that has foam between it and the concrete portion of the wall that allows the steel to flex and absorb energy) is even more disconcerting than watching the video of this accident.

The SAFER Barrier and the requirement of drivers to wear a head-and-neck restraint have saved lives. NASCAR evaluates cars after accidents and it has changed construction requirements to help prevent similar injuries.

NASCAR likely will do the same in this case. It has taken the LaJoie and Newman cars to its research and development center.

The facts are that cars are getting airborne at Daytona and Talladega. In the last couple of years, Newman, Jamie McMurray, Kyle Larson and Brendan Gaughan all have flipped. Gaughan got out of his car and after emerging from the infield care center, cracked several jokes. His car had landed back on all fours. Everyone laughed. What a great interview. It’s easy to laugh when the driver walks away.

But should it feel like NASCAR is playing with fire? The fact that NASCAR has gone 19 years without a death is something that should be celebrated because it certainly doesn’t come by luck. But those who have been around for decades can have the eerie feeling that no racing really is that safe, that there is a little bit of roulette, and at some point, the worst of the worst will happen.

Hopefully, Newman makes a full recovery. And hopefully, NASCAR takes a look at the style of racing it has promoted at Daytona and Talladega and see if it needs to change its aerodynamic package – there seems to be only so much they can do on the high-banked superspeedways – to keep the thrills along with the wheels on the ground and the drivers safe.

After an evaluation, NASCAR might decide that its racing is as safe as it can be in a world of highbanks and fast speeds. It has the past 19 years that proves its effectiveness in that area. But it also has had a night of heartache, fear, tears and prayer that will keep people from just assuming all drivers will walk away from every accident.