When Ryan Newman went to Darlington Raceway last month as part of the process to be medically cleared by NASCAR, he felt no apprehension climbing back into a car for the first time since his Daytona 500 crash.
“I was so excited and ready to go and just kind of prove myself that I actually had to slow myself down and make sure that I didn’t go out there and fence it on the first lap by trying too hard,” Newman said during a zoom media conference this week. “So I never felt like I had to be apprehensive toward it, other than the fact that I wanted to make sure that I didn’t mess up my own test.”
Newman said his first five laps topped last year’s Southern 500 pole speed of 172.487 mph by William Byron.
Newman ran 30 laps that day. He showed no issues from the brain bruise he suffered in the last-lap crash at Daytona that forced him to be hospitalized two days.
He missed three races before the Cup season was suspended by the coronavirus outbreak. NASCAR medically cleared him to race last month and he’ll make his return Sunday at Darlington Raceway (3:30 p.m. ET on FOX).
“I feel like a complete walking miracle,” Newman said.
Newman says that as he reflects on all that came together to protect him during the savage crash.
“Everything aligned in so many ways,” he said. “The safety workers, the personnel that were involved, that were inside the car with me, spent time with me during and after the crash, every layer of it there was multiple miracles – big miracles and little miracles, in my opinion – that aligned for me to be able to walk out days later with my hands around my daughters and to be thankful, so I can’t answer all of those things and I don’t think anybody can when miracles do happen, but we need to be thankful for that.”
Newman notes that the Daytona 500 was just the second race he had used his carbon fiber helmet.
“My helmet did have contact and my HANS did have contact, and I was being moved backwards in my seat as (LaJoie’s) car was moving me forward,” Newman said. “So I can’t honestly tell you what percentage of that inertia and those physics that went into the actual action of the crash were being driven by his car hitting me or his car hitting my roll bars.
“It’s not a fair assessment to say, but everything happened really quick and everything was all in that compartment, basically, and I guess it would be like a case of high-quality whiplash that kind of happened when I was hit.”
Newman said he remembers little about the accident but recalls some of what happened after his car came to stop upside down beyond the exit of pit road. The car was eventually rolled over with Newman inside. Safety workers extricated Newman 15 minutes, 40 seconds after the car came to rest, according to NASCAR.
“I know that I was fighting the medical crew there for a little while and they kind of helped me out in more ways than one,” Newman said. “But I really don’t have any recollection of the last lap and everything after that until I walked out of the hospital with my daughters (two days later).”
When Newman later watched video of the crash, he turned to his dad and said: “Hey, did this really happen?”
Questions remain if he suffered a concussion. Newman said doctors gave him different assessments on that.
“I kind of put it in layman’s terms of having a bruised brain because everybody knows what a bruise is,” Newman said of his injury. “You can’t see a concussion. It’s just a medical diagnosis, but a bruise you can see and the part of your brain or the fact that my brain was injured, I guess, in this accident to the point that it knocked me out and I don’t remember the actual parts of the accident that day, tells me that something happened.
“So I kind of self-diagnosed myself with that bruised brain because the reality is you need to give time for a bruise to heal. That’s what I needed was time for my brain to heal. I’ve really felt completely normal since, I guess in the last eight weeks no problem, no question. That doesn’t mean that I was and that’s why when it comes time to having a bruise heal, especially one you can’t see, you have to be extra careful.”
Healed, now the focus returns to racing.
NASCAR has granted Newman a waiver should he need it to qualify for the playoffs. He enters this weekend 29th in the driver standings, 54 points out of a potential playoff position.
“We certainly recognize that the easiest path to make the playoffs is win a race,” Kevin Kidd, competition director for Roush Fenway Racing, told NBC Sports. “We’re going to do everything in our power to accomplish that.”
Newman is not phased by returning to run five Cup races in 14 days, starting Sunday.
“I’ve done several races in several days in a row before, that’s no big deal,” he said. “I feel like the way the schedule is set, doing the one-day shows, you wouldn’t be doing something that we physically weren’t capable of or asked upon us by everybody that’s involved, and that’s from driving the race car to the hauler drivers and the pit crews and everybody involved. So I think that’s not a big deal. It’s not an easy ask, but I don’t think that’s insurmountable.”
Friday 5: Will iRacing grudges carry over to track?
It was supposed to be fun, but some of the hostilities between drivers during the Pro Invitational iRacing series could carry over to the track, some competitors say.
“I really, truly think a lot of these drivers, myself included, are going to be carrying grudges from the iRacing world over into the real world,” Tyler Reddick told NBC Sports. “I really do.
“I may just be the one crazy one, but how I’ve been raced on iRacing and unfortunately, probably not always on purpose, how I’ve raced others, is probably going to carry over as well. That’s just something you’ve got to think about.”
That virtual racing could elicit such feelings from drivers might surprise some.
Maybe it shouldn’t.
“We’re all very competitive,” Reddick said of the drivers. “Whenever we feel like someone does something wrong to us, it sticks with you, regardless of if it was on the highway or if it was in the grocery store or the parking lot.”
After a 71-day break due to the coronavirus pandemic, Cup drivers are back on track Sunday at Darlington Raceway (3:30 p.m. ET on FOX). They’ll have no practice or qualifying. Their first lap at speed will be when the green flag waves. And fuel some of those restless drivers with memories of what others did to them in virtual racing the past two months. Then see what happens.
Every time a driver competes against another, whether in the virtual or real world, they add to their notes on that foe. Each slight is catalogued for potential payback.
“It could be another thing in your notebook that you carry over and remember about this guy like that,” Matt DiBenedetto told NBC Sports on what could carry over from iRacing. “Like Ryan Preece and I. You’re not going to go crash each other, and we joked a little bit about it after. But it’s also like, man, I’ve been frustrated with him a couple of times on track before, maybe not using his brain like I think he should have. And then that’s another note in the notebook when you’re racing around him.”
During the iRacing race at virtual Richmond Raceway in April, DiBenedetto and Ryan Preece had contact that wrecked Preece. He returned the favor. DiBenedetto retaliated. iRacing officials parked DiBenedetto.
That isn’t the only iRacing incident that quickly comes to mind for DiBenedetto that is bothersome.
“At (virtual) Dover at the last race, just trying to be smart, and I checked up for a couple of guys in front of me, Jimmie (Johnson) and Kurt (Busch),” DiBenedetto said. “They got stacked up a little, so I check up some and Ross Chastain is behind me. He tries to use it as an opportunity to dive under me. He drives right through me and crashed me.
“Well, again, that’s another one in the notebook. Everybody knows that Ross is insanely aggressive, has a bunch of talent but still has some things to learn as far as patience.
“From iRacing to that, yes, it can still put things down in your notebook that you remember about that guy. It was funny to see that some of those guys, for example Ross, not picking on him, he’s a talented guy, but those characteristics were the same on iRacing as in real life.
“Then you would have Kevin Harvick that was out there being very smart and giving room and all that. I’m like yep, that’s Kevin. You could see that Kevin may not be as experienced in iRacing, but he was the same as in real life, giving some room and being real smart about what he was doing and not trying to crash people.”
But not every driver thinks what happened in iRacing will make an impact on the track.
“iRacing it’s not real,” Christopher Bell told NBC Sports. “It’s not real money going into the cars. It’s not real resources going into the car. At least from my end, nothing from that will carry over.”
What about other drivers?
“I would hope not,” he said.
2.Heated discussions during a pandemic
After 400 miles Sunday at Darlington, some drivers will be upset with fellow competitors.
In normal times, a driver might seek another on pit road to apologize to them. Or confront them.
Some discussions end peacefully. Others escalate, as happened last October between Joey Logano and Denny Hamlin at Martinsville. In some cases, not much is said before drivers tussle, as Cole Custer and Tyler Reddick did after last October’s Xfinity race at Kansas. In rare cases, no words are spoken. Only a punch is thrown, as Kyle Busch did to Logano after the 2017 Las Vegas race.
But with social distancing guidelines, what is the protocol for drivers in such matters after a race?
Will they stand 6 feet away and yell at each other? Will they stand much closer to argue and risk being fined as much as $50,000 for violating NASCAR’s COVID-19 guidelines? Or do they go back to their motorhome and text each other?
“I don’t think you really know until that moment happens,” Brad Keselowski told NBC Sports.
Matt DiBenedetto knows what he’d prefer to do.
“I’ve always been the guy to where I want to talk to that guy right now as soon as I get out of my race car and settle this immediately — and it’s not necessarily about any physical harm or anything,” he said. “I want to talk to this guy face-to-face right now and let him know that, hey, I mean business and I’m not going to tolerate this. I’ve always been a very stern guy. I try to give respect to everybody, and you want to get that respect as well.
“That (post-race scenario on pit road now) will actually be a weird one. I thought about that, if I want to address something with somebody. I don’t like doing it over texts. I only like face-to-face conversations because in a text message, things can get misconstrued.”
Denny Hamlin has a possible solution to having an issue with another driver.
“Meet them at the exit,” he joked.
“That’s the only thing I can think of. I don’t know. I actually thought about that, as well. If there’s ever a time to be aggressive, probably ruffle some feathers, this is probably the time to do it because you don’t have to face consequences right after the race.”
3. “Epic race”
Drivers have raced without practicing or qualifying before. It last happened at Indianapolis in 2018.
But that race can’t compare to the challenges drivers will face Sunday at Darlington after a 10-week layoff and temperatures expected to be near 90 degrees.
“It’s going to be a daunting challenge this week,” said Brad Keselowski, who won that 2018 Indy race and starts Sunday’s race on the pole. “There’s no doubt about it. I think it’s an opportunity for a team to rise to the top, so I’m cool with it.
“It’s going to be incredibly hot. South Carolina is another level of hot. I don’t know why South Carolina hot is hotter than hot everywhere else, but it just is.
“Then you’ve got the racetrack, one of the faster racetracks on the circuit. You’re right up against the wall, very little room for error. You have tires that wear out a lot. You get late in a run and you’re really sliding around, a huge opportunity to make a mistake. You’ve (also) got all the downtime for the drivers (since the last race). Perhaps even more dangerous than that is a lot of time spent on simulators, so an abundance of overconfidence, which always causes issues.
“No practice. No rubber on the track. You have an entire list here of reasons why this race (could) be a calamity. A lot of pressure in this race. You want to get back going and have a great race. There’s going to be a lot of eyes on this race, so you expect the pressures that come with that. This is going to be an epic race. There’s no way around that. That’s what NASCAR needs, an epic race.”
Add to the list of issues for drivers Sunday is that with no practice, they won’t have a chance to practice entering pit road. Darlington’s pit road entry is tricky. Keselowski missed pit road while running seventh in last year’s race. Ryan Blaney missed pit road in the 2017 race there after hitting the wall. Denny Hamlin missed pit road while leading the 2017 race with 54 laps to go and rallied to win.
Even though Sunday’s race is 400 miles instead of the typical 500 miles at Darlington, there’s a likelihood of multiple green-flag pit stops. With the way tires wear, as soon as one prominent car pits for tires, it will drag the rest of the field to pit road for fresh tires. That can bring trouble.
“Darlington, in my opinion, is the most challenging pit road entry of the entire year,” Matt DiBenedetto said. “I think of all things, that might be one of the most nerve-racking parts of the race. Doing that cold turkey is a lot harder than just firing off for the green flag and racing.”
So what makes Darlington’s pit road entry so hard?
“Pit road entry there is so far down the racetrack,” DiBenedetto said. “So you enter the corner and you’re on the racetrack and you start slowing down. It feels like you have to park just to hang a really, really hard left and go way down across the apron where you can’t even see. You’re on the racetrack and you can’t even see the pit road entry. You’re going by more of marks on the racetrack.”
4. Picking teams
With NASCAR limiting the number of team members for upcoming races, crew chiefs and competition directors had to decide who will go to Darlington this weekend and who stays behind.
Typically, teams have 10 road crew members, which includes the crew chief and spotter.
NASCAR now limits teams to six road crew members, including the crew chief and spotter. So that left four spots. Nearly every team brought its car chief, leaving three spots.
Top teams each have two engineers. What to do with those engineers was a point of debate for some teams.
“We have deliberated on this quite extensively,” Kevin Kidd, competition director at Roush Fenway Racing, told NBC Sports.
Each of Roush’s two teams will take only one engineer to the track.
“The job on the pit box is a pretty busy one,” Kidd said. “To really just rely on the crew chief and quite frankly to have the bandwidth to process everything that you need to process live and in real time is probably asking too much. Can you support things from home and can you do things? Yes. And we will. … We feel like an engineer to assist the crew chief is a critical part of the race.”
Each of Hendrick Motorsports’ four teams will have one of its engineers at the track.
“I feel honestly, that the preparation at the shop is what’s going to really be the key,” said Chad Knaus, crew chief for William Byron. “So, we wanted to keep a good, strong, staff of mechanics at the shop with good and recent racetrack experience to try to make sure that when we unload the race car that we’re absolutely race ready.”
None of Joe Gibbs Racing’s teams will have an engineer at the track Sunday.
Crew chief Chris Gayle, who helped lead Erik Jones to the Southern 500 win at Darlington last year, said he wanted an extra mechanic at the track over an engineer.
“I wanted to make sure that I had enough (mechanics) so that if we had damage, we had the correct people who could work on things,” Gayle told NBC Sports. “I didn’t want to sacrifice that. … It pretty much left you where you didn’t have too many options.”
5. So many unknowns
Over the course of the last couple of weeks, I asked several competitors what they were curious about Sunday, whether it was on the track or off the track. Here’s what some said:
Kevin Harvick: “I think with all the meetings that I’ve been a part of at home and iRacing and the way that the teams are functioning, there’s going to be some things that come out of this situation that are permanent and what those things are will start this weekend. I don’t really know what it is or what they will be, but I think this weekend will be the start of a process that you kind of have to look around and say: ‘You know what? That wasn’t a bad idea. We did it out of necessity to go in this racetrack and race and put on a show, but is that something we can carry forward?’ And I think that question is going to be asked a lot as we do things going forward.”
Cliff Daniels, crew chief for Jimmie Johnson: “What I’m really curious to see is going to be the evolution of any given competitor throughout the race. … It’s going to be really curious if you see somebody unloads and is blazing fast for the opening run, the track takes rubber, things evolve and change for the behavior of the track. Maybe they don’t keep up with it as well. Does that same guy that is blazing fast end up 12th? Or do you have somebody that barely struggles to stay on the lead lap by the end of the first stage? Do they come in and make an extended pit stop … and then they end up third. That’s what I’m curious to see. … Given that we don’t have practice and given that there’s no qualifying and we don’t have time to really tune to the track for the given weekend, I’m curious to see that. That’s a challenge I’m really looking forward to.”
Cole Custer: “That first lap will be interesting to see how aggressive everybody will be. I think how the team, all of us kind of work together to get prepared for the race. Those are really the only two things. I think for me, I’ve been trying to just focus on what I’m preparing myself for, and I don’t really worry about everything else.”
Ryan Sparks, crew chief for Corey LaJoie: “I’m curious who is going to be the first person to take their mask off and get a $10,000 fine. I pray that it’s nobody on our race team. It’s a new normal. It’s going to be a pain in the butt when you have a mask on your face and its 80 degrees and you’re trying to talk on the radio and it’s muffled. It’s going to take some getting used to, following NASCAR’s guidelines. We want to keep everybody safe. We don’t want to get anybody sick or anything like that. … I’m curious to see how everything is going to go, non-racing, everything affected by COVID-19. I think NASCAR has got a pretty good plan to get us in and out of there. It’s going to be interesting once you get there and see how it works.”
John Hunter Nemechek: “I’m curious about the viewership that we’re going to have. … I’m just kind of curious about the whole weekend, how it flows, how the racing goes.”
Brad Keselowski: “I think there are two things that really stand out me. One, the 88 car (of Alex Bowman) has been the best car on a mile-and-a-half (tracks). It left California as the fastest. It was probably the car that should have won Las Vegas. I’m curious if they have that speed (this weekend). I’m curious because I entered the season effectively with a new team, and we finished California with a top-five car and had a long list of areas that we thought we could to improve. I’m curious if we do just that this weekend at Darlington and find that level of speed like the 88 car had.”
Newman was injured when his car was hit from behind while racing for the win and veered into the wall. His No. 6 Ford went airborne and turned upside down before Corey LaJoie’s car slammed into it. Newman’s car skidded upside down along the frontstretch, coming to rest past the exit of pit road.
“We certainly recognize that the easiest path to make the playoffs is win a race,” Kevin Kidd, competition director for Roush Fenway Racing, told NBC Sports. “We’re going to do everything in our power to accomplish that.”
Kenseth’s last start came in the 2018 Cup finale in Miami.
Even so, former teammate Denny Hamlin is confident Kenseth will succeed.
“From my standpoint, I’m like, I don’t want him back,” Hamlin joked. “I know he gives great information. He can give an organization information. It’s another voice that that organization will hear that’s different than what they’ve had over the last few years. Not better or worse but just different. So, I think he’s probably going to lift that program up, similar to what he did to Roush toward the end (of the 2018 season).
“He’s my buddy, but I prefer him just to stay home at this point. I mean that jokingly.”
Kenseth also didn’t expect to be racing in Cup again before Ganassi officials reached out to him.
NASCAR also has granted Kenseth a waiver should he need it to make the playoffs.
One thing that keeps changing is the schedule.
This much is known: the Cup Series will race May 17 and 20 at Darlington Raceway and May 24 and 27 at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
No other races have been announced at this point, although Cup teams are preparing cars for Bristol Motor Speedway, signaling that the high-banked, half-mile track could be the site of the next Cup race after Darlington and Charlotte.
NASCAR stated that further schedule adjustments will be released in the near future.
Another change for teams is that they will have fewer crew members at the track in upcoming races. Cup teams could have as many as 10 crew members, including the crew chief and spotter, along with five pit crew members, three organizational team members and a couple of hauler drivers. That didn’t include additional senior level executives and the team owner, among others. For some teams, that was more than 20 people per team per race.
Now, teams are limited to no more than 16 individuals, with no more than six road crew members (including the crew chief and spotter). The reduced list also includes one driver, one competition director, one IT support person, two hauler drivers and five pit crew members.
Some teams are not taking either of their two engineers to the track. Instead of sitting atop the pit box next to the crew chief, they’ll be working from home or the shop. Crew chief Chris Gayle, who guided Erik Jones to the Southern 500 win last year in the most recent race at Darlington, will leave his engineers behind.
“I can have them connected to me wherever they are,” Gayle told NBC Sports. “I think the (crew number) is so limited, like if you look at what you really need behind the wall for pit stops and then from the standpoint of running the race. The race is going to be the same protocol as a normal race, meaning the (Damaged Vehicle Policy, which limits what type and how long teams can spend on repairs) and all the rest.
“I wanted to make sure that I had enough people that if we had damage we had the correct people that could work on things. I didn’t want to sacrifice that.”
CONCORD, N.C. — The Global Director of Ford Performance says he’s optimistic Roush Fenway Racing will be more competitive this season because of leadership changes that “embrace becoming more of an engineering-led organization.’’
Roush Fenway Racing has been shut out of NASCAR’s playoffs each of the past two seasons and last won a race in 2014.
Ford’s Dave Pericak said Wednesday at the Ford Performance Technical Center that Roush Fenway Racing is in a better position to take advantage of Ford’s technical support after offseason changes.
“I think Roush has made all of the right, now, decisions and changes within their organization to truly embrace becoming more of an engineering-led organization and putting the technology into these cars as opposed to just bolting some stuff together and going out on the racetrack,’’ Pericak told NBC Sports.
“I think there has been a huge acknowledgement on their side that there has to be a shift within their own organization, a shift within their leadership. We’ve helped them on a technical side of things to get their equipment up to speed. I’m optimistic that this year you’re going to see all of that coming together and you should see better performance out of that Roush organization.’’
Roush Fenway Racing opens the season with new personnel in executive levels. The team announced in late November that Kevin Kidd, who had been the organization’s Cup team manager, would become the competition director, and Tommy Wheeler, who oversaw the production of the organization’s Cup and Xfinity cars, would be the team’s operations director. The team also announced that Robbie Reiser, who had been general manager, was being reassigned.
The organization also is smaller this season. Roush downsized to a two-car operation with the departure of Greg Biffle. The team will have Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Trevor Bayne as drivers and loaned Chris Buescher to JTG Daugherty, a Chevrolet team, because there wasn’t a proper place to put him with a Ford team this year.
Stenhouse showed signs of progress early last season, climbing to 13th the points after the season’s fifth race before finishing the year 21st. Bayne placed 22nd and Biffle 23rd. The three drivers combined for zero wins, seven top-five and 14 top-10 finishes.
The top-five and top-10 results were an increase from the 2015 season. Roush’s drivers combined for four top fives and nine top 10s that season.
Roush is one of two Ford teams downsizing this year. Richard Petty Motorsports will field one entry this year instead of two. Pericak said such moves could help both teams.
“The downsizing that you’ve seen is a way for us to re-focus those teams and get back to the fundamentals and get them back on the right path,” Pericak said. “You don’t want to have so much going on that you can’t focus in areas that you need to focus and fix what you need.’’
Something else that could help Roush and RPM is the addition of Stewart-Haas Racing to the Ford camp. The move gives Ford two top-tier teams in SHR and Team Penske. Some of the information gleaned by those teams can be shared.
“I think when you look at that, it’s a very positive thing to bring that level of competition to your group, everyone is going to benefit from that,’’ Pericak said. “And the other thing we’ve been working strongly on is that one Ford approach, sharing where sharing makes sense.’’