Long: A sigh of relief punctuates the end of Daytona Speedweeks

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — When it was over, when a Daytona Speedweeks that featured outrage and exhilaration saw its final checkered flag, there was little euphoria, many anxious moments and eventually a sigh of relief.

Confusion and concern reigned on pit road after Ryan Newman’s horrific crash at the end of Monday night’s Daytona 500. Racing for the win, Newman’s car slammed into the wall before the start/finish line, was struck while upside down by Corey LaJoie’s car and slid down the track, a shower of sparks trailing, before coming to rest beyond the exit of pit road.

A conversation on one team’s radio said Newman was out of the car, but others on pit road said he was not. With drivers and teams parked closer to pit entrance after the race, no one could tell what was happening at the other end of pit road.

Safety crews needed more than 10 minutes to roll Newman’s car over, attend to him and cut the crumpled roof off to extricate the 42-year-old father of two.

Moments earlier, Ryan Blaney pushed Newman past Denny Hamlin into the lead on the backstretch of the final lap. Blaney attempted to pass on the frontstretch, but Newman blocked. Blaney realized he was going to finish second and wanted to ensure a Ford won, so he pushed Newman. But one bump unsettled Newman’s car, triggering the incident.

Afterward, Blaney stood with his crew by his car on pit road for several minutes but little was said. They waited to hear about Newman’s condition. As many did.

When he talked to the media, Blaney’s face was ashen and his eyes blank as he recounted a last lap he’d like to forget but likely never will.

“I hope he’s alright,” Blaney said. “That looked really bad. Definitely unintentional. … Just waiting to see if he’s OK.”

As he spoke, an ambulance sped past, taking Newman to Halifax Health Medical Center.

Until the end of the Daytona 500, Speedweeks had provided its fill of drama, intrigue and bliss.

It started with the Busch Clash the week before where all 18 cars were involved in an at least one accident and winner Erik Jones was collected in three incidents. The main story that day, though, was Brad Keselowski’s  anger toward teammate Joey Logano for an accident that collected both and Kyle Busch.

A few days later the focus returned to racing. Logano won his qualifying race and William Byron won his qualifying race, his first Cup victory at Daytona. But Daniel Suarez suffered heartbreak when he was involved in a crash and failed to qualify for the 500.

The following night saw Jordan Anderson finish second by one-hundredth of a second, but he celebrated as if he won. The 28-year-old has raced in the Truck series most of the past five years but it hasn’t been easy. He has often pulled his truck in a dually and struggled to find funding. He sold equipment to help keep his team going in the offseason and purchase the truck he ran at Daytona.

After finishing second, Anderson couldn’t stop smiling.

“This finish tonight … is for every underdog in America, every kid that stays up late and works on his dirt late model or legends car and dreams of coming to Daytona,” Anderson said. “Hopefully, this finish tonight encourages them to never give up on their dreams.”

Less than 24 hours later, Noah Gragson was burning up the track. Literally.

Gragson celebrated his first Xfinity win with an extended burnout that had some rubber burning on the track.

“I caught the track on fire,” the 21-year-old driver for JR Motorsports said. “I thought that always would be really, really cool to catch the track on fire from doing a burnout, and I was able to do that.”

A Sunday filled with sunshine started with Air Force One delivering President Donald J. Trump. He spoke briefly to fans. They serenaded him with chants of “U-S-A!” He gave the command to start engines and his motorcade led the field on a pace lap, something never before done in a race. But rain delayed the start and the electricity that had built faded when the field only got 20 laps in before a second rain delay postponed the race to Monday.

Sunday’s energy grew through a late Monday afternoon under sunny and warm conditions. Crashes reduced the field but still left enough cars to create a dramatic win for Hamlin.

But that was overshadowed by Newman’s wreck.

And all the waiting.

Fans left the track without knowing Newman’s condition. Those at the track stood around. Nobody knew.

Informed of the severity of Newman’s crash, Hamlin and Joe Gibbs Racing muted their victory lane activities. A somber atmosphere hung over the track.

It was a stark reminder of how dangerous racing can be, something many have overlooked as they’ve applauded countless drivers who emerged with no serious injuries from high-flying cars that tumbled and rolled. It also showed how far safety has come in NASCAR since Dale Earnhardt’s fatal crash in 2001.

Two hours after Newman’s ambulance ride, the news came.

He was alive.

And a sigh of relief filled a silent racetrack.

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