The 62nd Running of the Daytona 500 was supposed to be the race that transitioned NASCAR back to prominence. For a sport that once was the juggernaut in the sports world behind only the NFL, has been marred by a decline out of the limelight over the past several seasons. They lost focus on who they were and what got them to the limelight that all the years of gaining in popularity went away by each passing season.
But, all signs were starting to point in the right direction again. We were heading towards a big year ahead for the 2020 NASCAR Cup Series season. At this juncture, years down the road when the sport his hopefully back in the daily limelight again, the 2020 Daytona 500 would be the moment we look back on and see as the significant moment it all turned around.
This was supposed to be the stage to what people look back on when they point to the exact moment that the rise back up for NASCAR started. After years and years of numbers hemorrhaging, NASCAR had appeared to finally stop the bleeding last year.
New leadership at the top had stabilized the sport. Changes to the schedule came for 2020. There was a lot of anticipation building into Daytona Speedweeks this year.
The Busch Clash saw a 7-percent increase in viewership. A few days later, it was announced that President Trump and his First Lady would not only be coming to the Daytona 500, but he was giving the command too. A day later, the track announced all 101,500 grandstand seats would be sold out for a fifth consecutive year, but factor in the camping aspect and you get what Daytona International Speedway officials called the largest attended Great American Race in years.
There were RV’s as far as the eye could see this past weekend, even outside of the track. This truly felt like a big event. The atmosphere was back. This had been what NASCAR has been missing for the last decade. This is what a NASCAR race used to feel like.
A day after that, DIS officials announced a record setting purse totaling over $23.6 million that was being distributed in prize money.
The buzz surrounding the race was large. Everywhere you went around town was Daytona 500. The event was marquee and felt like the Super Bowl, the nickname the race used to be given.
We witnessed the closest finish in NASCAR Truck Series history on the high banks of Daytona on Friday night when Grant Enfinger narrowly beat Jordan Anderson by just .010-seconds to the finish line.
Saturday say NASCAR’s future shine in the NASCAR Xfinity Series race.
Sunday, Air Force One came in over the speedway and landed at the airport behind the backstretch for all fans to see. It was time to witness history. The buildup of the last week was behind us. The anticipation building was at his crescendo and it was time to drop the green flag of NASCAR’s rise.
As the belts were pulled tight inside of the race cars, the fans hearts thumping and the voices cheering, hats waving just as the 40 starters were about to take the green flag for the 62nd Annual event on Sunday, the skies opened up for a quick rain shower. Instead of taking the green, the took the red.
Here we go again, right?
A 62 minute rain delay followed, but we’d get going finally at 4:20 p.m. ET not 3:18 p.m. ET. like initially scheduled. 20 laps would go by before a second rain delay. Then, just as we about had the track dried to resume the Daytona 500, a third rain storm hit — ending the night early and postponing the Daytona 500 to the next day for just the second time in 62 year history of the race.
That next day felt different but once the race got going, you knew you were at the Daytona 500 again. We saw thrilling racing with an exhilarating finish. What more could you ask for? Denny Hamlin beat Ryan Blaney in the second closest finish (.014-seconds) in Daytona 500 history.
But, all that anticipation. All that glory. It vanished in the blink of an eye. Instead of celebrating a resurgence for NASCAR, we endured 42 hours of hell. It was the 42 hours after that finish to what took all of that momentum away and sent the NASCAR world back to a far dark place that they thought they’d never see again.
Go back to the year 2000, in a span of six months, NASCAR lost rising stars Adam Petty, Kenny Irwin Jr. and Tony Roper all to deaths inside of the race car. Then, the 2001 season started off with the death of Dale Earnhardt.
From May 2000 to February 2001, NASCAR saw four drivers fallen right before their very eyes. All to similar fatal injuries. NASCAR was shook.
From that point forward though, NASCAR took safety for their drivers very seriously and put safety initiatives in place.
Installation of SAFER barriers at all tracks went up. The HANS device was mandated. The cars would evolve over the years too and become growingly safer and safer.
Since that dark day at Daytona on Feb. 18, 2001, we haven’t witnessed a single NASCAR fatality. Those four drivers that unfortunately perished in that six month span, paved the way for drivers to walk away from crashes instead of walking away from their families for good.
This past Monday, Feb. 17, we thought that 19 year streak had unfortunately come to a devastating end. The final lap of Monday’s rain delayed Daytona 500 brought back old memories and reopened old wounds that in all honestly, never healed in this sport. The day we lost Dale, is a day that no one will never ever come to grips with. It’s arguably the darkest day in NASCAR history. Fans don’t get over a day like that. They never have. They’ve just learned to live with it.
Year after year has gone by and as the safety gets better and the crashes get harder, these daredevils continue to get out of their cars, one by one, and come back next week for more. Feb. 18, 2001 is a day that we’ve all suppressed. We’ve since grown numb to ever going back there.
It’s not a place in our lives that we want to talk about nor live again. We’ve gone 19 years since feeling that empty tragedy feeling and no one ever wanted to go through that pain again.
On Monday night at 7:49 p.m. ET, Ryan Newman wasn’t climbing out of that badly damaged race car on his own. We’ve seen crashes like this before, well not exactly the same crash, but frightening crashes nevertheless, that prior to 2001 would have instantly killed these drivers. Since these years have clicked by, we’ve grown complacent and feeling too secure watching human beings drive vehicles out of control at speeds nearing, or sometimes above, 200 mph. But, the drivers that happen to get involved in some of the most violent crashes in series history, keep hopping out of their race cars and walking away every single time like nothing had just happened.
This crash instantly seemed different though. The scene was different. We all instantly saw what we feared and hoped for the best but feared for the worst. 2000 and 2001 was coming back and there was no way of stopping those rushing feelings. Those wounds that never healed were reopened. The hole in our hearts and fear in our brains were on overdrive. A quiet yet eerie vibe covered the massive grounds on the eastern Florida race track that just 30 hours prior to that was full of joy and buzzing with anticipation.
Our worst fears were starting to become a reality — 2000/2001 was back.
Drivers were shook. Fans had tears in their eyes. Newman, had to be cut out of his car and rushed to nearby Halifax Health Medical Center via a speeding ambulance. The minutes and hours after that unbelievable crash seemed like an eternity. Speculation was growing and it wasn’t good. No one knew that to believe or think.
These safety enhancements were great in all, but how do you protect a race car driver in an impact at the worst possible spot an impact could be occur? These cars are safer than ever before. The drivers are built like never before. The cars and the drivers can withstand forces to their bodies at rates that nothing should survive. But this impact was in an area we’re not used to seeing, the one spot that is still vulnerable — the driver side hood/door area.
“We pushed (Ryan) Newman there to the lead and then we got a push from the 11 (Denny Hamlin) and I made a move off 4 on Newman and he blocked it,” a visible dejected Ryan Blaney said after the crash. “I kind of went low and he blocked that, so then I was committed to just pushing him to the win and trying to have a Ford win it.
“I don’t know. We just got bumpers hooked up wrong and turned him. I hope he’s alright. Definitely was trying to push him to a win. I don’t want to say those things happen. I feel really bad about it.”
Blaney, felt the whole world on his young shoulders. He didn’t mean to, but lasting images are of his car behind Newman’s at the time of the incident. Blaney felt guilt. While that wreck was in no way shape or form Blaney’s fault, try telling that to a guy in his mid 20’s who thought that he may have accidentally took two little girls father away from them.
He was reeling and until a few hours ago, nothing changed on his mind. Darrell Wallace Jr. put out a series of tweets on Wednesday saying that he has been spending time with his fellow competitor but also good friend of his, and he was in a very dark place still. He was struggling to come to grips that there’s nothing that he could have done to avoid that.
It didn’t matter what anyone said, the guilt was overwhelming and how can you blame him?
Then there’s the viral picture of Corey LaJoie kneeling away from his car after he hit Newman in the aftermath of the accident. LaJoie, like Blaney, didn’t purposely run into Newman’s car at speeds near 200 mph. He was fighting for a win at the end of the Daytona 500 and couldn’t slow a car weighing over 3,500 pounds, traveling in excess of 190 mph down in enough time to not hit a pillar of smoke that he didn’t know a car was in it. How could he? He had a millisecond to avoid it and there’s not one human on this great Earth of ours that could have done anything differently.
LaJoie, felt guilt anyways too. He and Blaney were struggling visibly with this.
The mood was grim from 7:49 p.m. ET until just after 10 p.m. ET. Those 2+ hours were agonizing. It put every single person that followed NASCAR, media, teams drivers, fans, etc to the test. While I needed to write about the photo finish, how Denny Hamlin joined prestigious company as a three-time Daytona 500 champion, the brilliant moves he made to get there, all I could think about was Ryan and what he and his family could be going through. All kinds of emotions ran over me. That’s just me, what about everyone else?
Finally, that announcement came – “Ryan Newman is being treated at Halifax Medical Center,” Steve O’Donnell, NASCAR executive vice president and chief racing development officer, said on Monday night at 10:06 p.m. ET, at the Daytona International Speedway. “He’s in serious condition but doctors have indicated his injuries are non-life threatening. We appreciate your thoughts and prayers and ask that you respect the privacy of Ryan and his family during this time. We appreciate your patience and cooperation and will provide more information as it becomes available.”
While that was positive news, most still feared for the worst. Yes, he’s not facing life threatening injuries, that’s great, but the injuries are still “serious.” How bad was he hurt? Was he awake? Was he alert? Was he even conscious? All those thoughts were coming to people’s minds, but it’s honestly none of our damn business to get those questions answered. The people we were thinking of were Ryan and his family including both of his young daughters. At least their father is still alive, that is great and all, but to what capacity can he be a father to them?
The fear became greater at the next announcement on Tuesday morning saying that Newman is still at the hospital but no other details were given. That again sounded grim. He’s alive still, which again is great, but the only thing to do was keep praying for strength for Ryan and his family.
I didn’t give a damn at that point if Ryan ever raced again, all I cared about was his well being for the future and those two little girls. Please, let this man walk again and get to be a daddy. That’s all my mind was on. I couldn’t turn it off. I know I’m speaking for almost everyone in saying that.
Tuesday evening, it was announced that Newman was now awake, alert and talking. That was great news. The grim feeling got better, but what about those injuries?
Then, Wednesday gave us the best news ever, not only was he up and walking and taking picture with his daughters he was released from the hospital at that!
Newman, 42 years old, was walking out of Halifax Medical Center, just a stones throw from the Daytona International Speedway, 42 hours after by far one of the most frightening crashes that I’ve ever witnessed.
42 hours prior, I would have been happy with him leaving there in anything but the grim alternative. But, 42 hours, 42 miraculous hours later, he’s leaving with his daughters on either side.
All that worry, all that pain, all that sadness was gone due to a picture on social media. This accident though now serves as a reminder, that there’s nothing safe about this sport. There’s nothing safe about vehicles traveling at high rates of speed in close proximity of one another.
But, what we can hang out hats on is the safety measures that NASCAR has taken since those dark two years nearly two decades ago and cheer on Newman and his daughters.