LAS VEGAS — This we know: Ryan Newman might very well be the toughest man in NASCAR.
The Purdue graduate with an engineering degree has, for 18 seasons, railed against the dangers of superspeedway racing. He’d been airborne in his car too many times for his comfort, and his scathing criticism of NASCAR’s approach to racing at Daytona and Talladega got him fined for his bluntness.
Now he has a head injury from yet another airborne accident, this one on the last lap of the Daytona 500, and his streak of 649 consecutive races ended Sunday at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. He could have been killed; in a statement, he intimated he understands it should have been a fatal accident.
“I have spoken with Jack Roush and he has assured me that the No. 6 car will be waiting and ready for my return,” Newman said.
And with that, a long emotional week for NASCAR came to an end. The Cup Series went racing again, Joey Logano won at Las Vegas for the second consecutive year and Ryan Blaney proved he has shaken off the demons that haunted him after his car triggered Newman’s crash. Ross Chastain was a suitable replacement for Newman and the entire Roush organization was able to take a collective breath and return its focus to winning races.
Newman wants to be the one to publicly discuss his ordeal, Roush President Steve Newmark said, so the statement is all Newman is ready to offer for now. He said he avoided any broken bones or internal injuries, and doctors are pleased with the way he’s healing.
It is Newman’s right to handle the situation any way he chooses. But the long week took its toll on the NASCAR community and the lack of information made fans fear the worst for the 42-year-old Indiana native.
It took almost 20 minutes to get Newman out of its car, which was upside-down and on fire when it came to a stop. NASCAR reconstructed the safety team response and said a paramedic had entered Newman’s car 35 seconds after it came to a stop and was working on the driver the entire time.
The unsettling moment of Newman’s extraction came when the safety team brought out several black screens in an attempt to shield the scene. Mike Helton, president of NASCAR when Dale Earnhardt was killed at Daytona in 2001, acknowledged to The Associated Press the negative connotation assumed when an accident scene is covered.
Veterans understand that when a tarp is brought out to cover a car, it almost always signifies a fatality. The black screens had never been used before and hearts sank across the sport as workers attempted to shield Newman’s removal from the car.
Steve O’Donnell, the NASCAR executive in charge of competition and development, told AP the screens are somewhat a result of Aric Almirola’s 2017 crash in Kansas, where photographers had clear shots of his suffering as he was removed from his car with a broken back. Almirola was livid.
The idea of attempting to shield — in a testament to how safe NASCAR has made its stock cars —had not been seen until last Monday night when they were placed around Newman’s car.
“If you look at our history before, (shielding) was certainly with the most dire situation,” O’Donnell told AP. “I think what we learned after the Aric Almirola incident and all the footage that is out there was not really fair to the driver. I don’t know if we can 100% stop that in the future, so I think you could see us be more liberal to that in the future.”
O’Donnell acknowledged fans could be led to think the worst but said NASCAR is obligated to protect its competitors.
“We are always going to err on protecting the driver,” O’Donnell said.
The screens, as it turned out, weren’t tall enough to shield Newman from fans high in the Daytona grandstands. And, O’Donnell expressed regret NASCAR didn’t tarp Newman’s car because some sort of covering would have contained all the broken parts, pieces and twisted metal needed to be examined in the accident investigation.
So work will continue, as it has in the 19 years since Earnhardt was the last Cup driver killed in a race. Newman seems to be healing and Newmark confirmed Newman’s goal of winning the 2020 championship remains intact.
In the roller-coaster week of completing the rain-delayed Daytona 500, tending to Newman and shifting the series across the country to Las Vegas, the NASCAR community showed its unwavering support for its family. Helton was one of the first to arrive at the hospital and Newman was either visited or called by all top executives, from Chairman Jim France on down.
Daytona 500 winner Denny Hamlin went to the hospital after he left the track. Martin Truex Jr. was in Daytona awaiting Newman’s discharge from the hospital. Blaney spoke to him Wednesday night. Joey Logano texted a joke about Newman not having a neck.
Newman, one of the most stubborn drivers in the series who will absolutely never yield position on track without a fierce battle, was moved.
“I want to personally thank everyone, including the man upstairs, for their support, encouragement and the numerous offers of assistance,” Newman said. “We always say that the NASCAR community is one big family and never has that been more evident to me than after seeing this family rally together and provide the comfort and support that has been shown to my family and me over the past few days. The calls and visits from the NASCAR executives and my friends and competitors has been truly uplifting.”