Up ahead, defending champion Denny Hamlin seized quick advantage and whipped around Blaney to win stock-car racing’s Super Bowl by inches. It was his third Daytona win and the fourth for team owner Joe Gibbs.
But the celebration was cut short over concern for Newman as emergency vehicles and track safety workers sped to his car to extinguish the flames. Track workers erected black screens around the wreckage as Newman, 42, was extricated.
He was transported to Daytona’s Halifax Medical Center, the same hospital that received the body of seven-time series champion Dale Earnhardt Sr. following his fatal crash on the last lap of the 2001 Daytona 500.
Nearly two hours after the race ended, NASCAR officials read a statement from Roush Fenway Racing confirming Newman was undergoing treatment and in “serious condition” but that his injuries were not life-threatening. “Our thoughts are with Ryan and his family,” NASCAR executive Steve O’Donnell said.
“Definitely was trying to push him to a win,” Blaney explained later. “I don’t want to say, ‘Those things happen.’ I feel really bad about it, man, but close one. I hope Ryan is all right.”
Word on Newman’s condition was slow in coming, leaving Fox broadcasters, fellow racers and fans fearing the worst, given the harrowing sequence of events. Many recalled the crash that had killed Earnhardt as he rounded the track’s fourth turn 19 years earlier, the checkered flag in sight. In many ways, Monday’s proceedings felt like a ghastly reprieve.
The season-opening race had gotten underway Sunday afternoon as scheduled, but downpours halted the proceedings after just 20 laps.
After years of declining TV ratings and a precipitous slide in attendance, NASCAR officials were hoping the 2020 edition of “The Great American Race” would mark a turnabout, with close-quarters racing and a thrilling finish. But as the 200-lap event wound down, drivers’ aggression ramped up. They jockeyed for position two- and three-wide over the final 40 laps, and a multicar pileup resulted, wiping out several top contenders. Another melee followed until there were only 18 cars from the field of 40 on the lead lap. Newman was among them, having slipped past trouble at every turn.
With three laps remaining, an attempt to restart the race was marred when three cars tangled, bringing out the caution flag again. The second attempt worked.
The violent sequence of events unfolded with Newman leading a pack around 21/2-mile Daytona International Speedway. As Newman sped toward the finish, his Ford Mustang was punted skyward and into the wall after contact from Blaney. It landed on its roof, momentum carrying it along as sparks flew and flames erupted. Then came a second hit, from LaJoie, who saw nothing but smoke ahead.
LaJoie said he’d hoped that Newman "would kind of bounce off the fence to the left, but he didn’t, and I hit him. ... It was some scary stuff.”
Newman was eventually credited with a ninth-place finish as Hamlin steered his car toward Victory Lane. The Fox broadcast continued, but the gravity was evident to racers, both active and retired, who immediately turned to social media to voice their concern and offer prayers.
Newman’s toughness and tenacity have earned him admirers across motorsports.
Among those voicing concern Monday were two-time Daytona 500 winner Dale Earnhardt Jr. and 2013 Indianapolis 500 champion Tony Kanaan.
Wrote LaJoie on Twitter: “Dang I hope Newman is ok. That is worst case scenerio and I had nowhere to go but smoke.”
Fellow NASCAR racer Brad Keselowski simply tweeted, “Please please please!”
Fears increased after Fox analyst Jeff Gordon returned following a commercial break to close the broadcast, which had run overtime. Gordon, whose eyes appeared red, offered: “Safety has come a long way in this sport. Sometimes we are reminded that it is a very dangerous sport. Thoughts and prayers are with Ryan Newman.”
Speaking on SiriusXM Radio, Gibbs apologized after the race for his team’s celebration, explaining that the group didn’t realize the severity of the crash until it reached Victory Lane. He added his voice to the prayers for Newman.
In photos: A fiery crash on the last lap of the Daytona 500
In many ways, NASCAR has never recovered from the death of Earnhardt Sr., its most polarizing champion, who was regarded as its fiercest competitor and the master of Daytona’s aerodynamic draft. But stock-car racing moved forward, instituting a series of safety precautions that made the cars safer and racetrack walls more forgiving.
Although fans intermittently complain that NASCAR had made the races boring, turning the competition into a single-file parade, there has not been a death in the sport’s top series since 2001.
— Liz Clarke
Find live updates from the Daytona 500, by Des Bieler and Cindy Boren, below.