DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (AP) — Ryan Newman has barrel-rolled his way through many terrifying crashes over his 20-year NASCAR career. This one, though, caused the sport to pause.
Newman slid across the finish line in a crumpled heap of metal, sparks flying as his car skidded to a halt with fuel pouring onto the track frighteningly close to open flames.
Everyone gasped as track workers placed large black screens around his car and worked to get him out. They had to wait two excruciating hours to finally exhale.
The 42-year-old Newman was involved in a ghastly crash on the final lap of the Daytona 500 on Monday night and everyone feared the worst. NASCAR has not had a fatality in its elite Cup Series since 2001, but this wreck just looked different.
It took two long hours before NASCAR announced Newman had non-life threatening injuries and was in serious condition at nearby Halifax Medical Center.
“We had been waiting for information just like everyone else, so to hear some positive news tonight is a relief,” said Mark Rushbrook, global director for Ford Performance Motorsports. “The entire Ford family is sending positive thoughts for his recovery, but our first thoughts remain with his family and his team.”
Safety crews rushed to Newman’s No. 6 Ford and worked to get the “Rocketman” out of his seat. The car was on fire as it skidded to a stop and had to be turned onto its tires before he could be unstrapped. Fox opted not to broadcast Newman’s removal.
Ryan Blaney, who locked bumpers with Newman and turned him sideways, sounded crestfallen afterward. Corey LaJoie, who slammed into Newman’s sideways car at full speed, watched a replay and insisted he had no way to avoid the contact. Fox Sports analyst and four-time Cup Series champion Jeff Gordon may have summed it up best.
“Safety’s come a long way in this sport, but sometimes we are reminded that it is a very dangerous sport,” Gordon said quietly as the broadcast came to a close with Newman’s condition still unknown.
Breathtaking crashes are common at Daytona International Speedway, where drivers racing for position at 200 mph and in tight quarters often make contact. There have been no fatalities at the track since Dale Earnhardt’s death following a crash on the final lap of the 2001 Daytona 500.
NASCAR responded by beefing up safety regulations, mandating head-and-neck restraints and improving the design and development of the cars.
Newman has been a harsh critic of NASCAR’s struggles to keep cars on the racing surface, even getting fined for public comments the sanctioning body considered negative. In 2010, he said fans shouldn’t even go to the track to see races at Talladega Superspeedway in Alabama.
Newman had escaped several scary wrecks at Daytona and Talladega over the years. His car went airborne, flipped repeatedly and landed on its roof in the 2003 Daytona 500. He had a similar crash-landing at Talladega in 2009.
His latest one will go down in Daytona history along with Austin Dillon’s memorable crash into the catch fence on the final lap of the 2015 July race at Daytona. His car went airborne and tore down part of the fence and injured several fans. The car, with its engine already resting on another part of the track, ended up on its roof and then was smashed into by Brad Keselowski’s car. Dillon remarkably walked away unscathed.
Newman’s wreck looked just as awful to the naked eye and arguably worse on replay.
Blaney turned him hard right and into the outside wall. His car immediately flipped and was sliding on its side when LaJoie rammed into it.
“Dang I hope Newman is ok,” LaJoie tweeted. “That is worst case scenerio and I had nowhere to go but smoke.”
Denny Hamlin won the race for Joe Gibbs Racing, his second straight victory in the season opener and third in the last five years. The team celebrated near the start-finish line and again when confetti flew in victory lane, prompting Gibbs to later apologize.
“We really didn’t know,” Gibbs said. “We got in the winner’s circle and then that’s when people told us. I wanted to explain that to everyone.
“That’s what makes it so hard. Such a close-knit community, you know everybody. … If you think about all the wrecks that we’ve had over the last how many number of years, some of them have been real serious. We’ve been real fortunate.”
NASCAR has declined in popularity since the safety changes that followed Earnhardt’s death, almost falling back to its roots as a regional sport. Newman’s crash surely will elicit calls for NASCAR to do even more.
Newman, an Indiana native who graduated with an engineering degree from Purdue, said earlier during Speedweeks he felt renewed in his second year at Roush Fenway Racing and had stop thinking about retirement.
“It’s all about competitiveness and fun,” said Newman, who also announced he and his wife had split after 16 years or marriage. “I want to have fun with my life. If I can have fun in this garage doing it and get paid what I feel like I deserve to get paid, then I’m all for it. It’s got to be fun and it’s got be rewarding in more ways than one.
“I’m doing it past when I said I was going to do it 10 years ago. I don’t know how to give the answer anymore, I really don’t. I always said 40 and I’m 42 now.”
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