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Two years later: NASCAR reflects on Newman's crash at Daytona

Before the world shutdown from the COVID pandemic, the sports world stood still in February 2020 when Ryan Newman crashed at the finish line of the Daytona 500.
Credit: NASCAR
Ryan Newman walks out of Halifax Medical Center hand-in-hand with his daughters, two days after a horrifying crash at the Daytona 500 in February 2020.

Every driver at the 63rd Daytona 500 Media Day readily admitted Wednesday: crashes, in particular "the Big One" at Daytona, are inevitable at the World Center of Racing.

But this is one crash Ryan Blaney doesn't like to think about.

"It's not something you ever want to remember. It is hard to believe it was two years ago," the driver of the No. 12 Ford Mustang said. 

"It" came on February 17, 2020. It came at the finish line of the 61st running of the Daytona 500. Blaney pushed fellow Ford Mustang driver Ryan Newman into the lead on the final lap. Then, the two cars inadvertently hooked. While Blaney held on tight to place second (the second-closest finish in Daytona 500 history), Newman went flying into the air, striking another car before coming to a screeching halt.

"I wrecked out about halfway in that race, and I was on my way back to South Florida [where] I have an off-season home," fellow driver Kurt Busch recalled. "And I'm listening on the racing radio. And I hear this wreck, and I could tell in the [announcer's] voice and the way it came through the speakers in the car... and I looked at my wife. She looked at me. And I said, 'should we turn around and go back?'"

Newman was rushed to Halifax Medical Center and put in a medically-induced coma. For the harrowing, several hours that followed, no one knew for certain his status. Finally, word came that not only was Newman alive: he would be discharged from the hospital just two days later.

"That was a difficult time for him and everybody around because we're all family. We're fierce competitors and want to beat each other, but you never ever want to see anyone get hurt," Blaney added. "I remember talking to him a couple days later and he was making jokes. Made me feel better, personally, because I felt terrible about [the crash]."

Weeks after the crash, the COVID-19 pandemic shut down all of sports, including the NASCAR Cup Series. When they returned to racing at Phoenix in May 2020, Newman was in attendance. Eventually, he made his way back onto the track that same season and then at the 2021 Daytona 500. 

2018 Daytona 500 champ Austin Dillon was among those who spent time with Newman following the accident. Dillon had a harrowing crash of his own at the World Center of Racing finish line at the 2015 Coke Zero Sugar 400. 

"[Newman] was talking to me about God and how he and I had both gone through some crazy wrecks -- and why we were both still here," Dillon explained. "Fortunate in our sport that we've learned from a lot of things [like this]. Dale [Earnhardt] passing away. Different wrecks that have made our car safer. The safety part of our sport has really been keyed upon. It's probably the reason Newman and I both are still here with some of the wrecks we've had."

At this year's Daytona 500, two years after Newman's crash, the NextGen cars that debuted at the Busch Clash at the Coliseum will take center-stage in Daytona Beach. To many of the veteran drivers, there is no question: there's a direct correlation between Newman's crash and the first new car in almost 15 years on the Cup Series.

"The way we saw the car and all of the energy -- how it absorbed the wreck, but what we can do better? It really spring-boarded the NextGen car to happen -- ASAP."

No longer affiliated with Roush Fenway Racing, Newman won't be running in this year's Daytona 500. He has said he plans to focus on "short track grassroots racing" in 2022.

But the impact of a crash two years ago is still being felt in Daytona Beach. 

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