As viewers gasped at the sight of race leader Ryan Newman getting turned into the wall on the final lap, Gordon, 48 and in his fifth season with Fox, wasn’t overly worried for his safety and was reasonably confident in the safety features designed to protect drivers — the energy-absorbing barriers cushioning the wall, the head-and-neck restraint stabilizing the spine and the carbon-fiber seat encasing the legs and torso.
Even when Newman’s car launched into the air, Gordon didn’t panic, feeling sure Newman would emerge relatively unscathed, apart from soreness and maybe a concussion.
It was the third impact — the hit on the driver’s side from Corey LaJoie, running at top speed and unable to see through billowing smoke — when Gordon feared the worst.
“You can’t replicate that. You can’t test for that,” he explained in a telephone interview Saturday. “You can’t understand how the car is going to hold up.”
With a producer in his ear and veteran broadcaster Mike Joy sharing the booth with him, Gordon knew he couldn’t comment beyond the facts at hand. And there were precious few facts about Newman’s condition as Denny Hamlin roared to his third Daytona 500 victory.
“It was very, very difficult,” said Gordon, whose fear was evident as Fox concluded the broadcast. “I was thinking the worst. We only had a minute and a half or two minutes after we came back from the [commercial] break. All I could do was try to say what was on my mind about the unknowns and send prayers for Ryan because we’re not only talking to fans watching. There are family members watching — maybe close friends.”
In a wide-ranging conversation, Gordon, who claimed three Daytona 500 victories in his Hall of Fame career, reflected on why drivers risk so much on the waning laps and why nearly all drivers, with rare exception, are so determined to get back into the car as quickly as possible after a crash.
“When you’ve been doing it your whole life, you don’t know anything different,” said Gordon, who never missed a start, competing in 797 consecutive races during his Cup career. “You’re passionate about it more than you feel it’s a job. Sitting on the couch — unless you planned for it and it’s on your terms, you just can’t do it. If you still have that desire to be out there, as soon as the doctor clears you, you’re ready to get back out there.”
Newman, 42, walked out of Halifax Memorial Hospital on Wednesday, holding his daughters’ hands, less than 48 hours after the horrific, fiery crash. Roush Fenway Racing has offered no timetable for Newman’s return. As he recuperates, Ross Chastain will take over in the No. 6 Ford starting with Sunday’s race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
On Saturday in Las Vegas, NASCAR executive vice president Steve O’Donnell provided a detailed timeline for the response to Newman’s crash, noting that the safety truck arrived 19 seconds after the car came to rest and a paramedic and three doctors followed seconds later. O’Donnell also said NASCAR would not change its overtime rules in the wake of the crash; some feel the approach sets up inevitable crashes in the furious scramble that follows late restarts.
Gordon understands well the calculus of risk vs. reward in the waning laps. The stakes are particularly high at Daytona and Talladega, NASCAR’s fastest tracks, where carburetor restrictor plates are mandated to keep speeds under 200 mph. In doing so, however, they bunch up the field in dense, dangerous packs. A single driver’s misstep can take out a dozen cars.
The Daytona 500 included two major pileups in the final 20 laps — a 19-car wreck on Lap 185 (of 200) and a nine-car melee on Lap 200 that prompted the series of restarts.
With horsepower essentially equal, drivers can’t make a pass without exploiting the aerodynamic draft or getting help from a trusted competitor in the form of a well-placed shove in the bumper.
That’s the high-stakes dance that Newman, Hamlin and Ryan Blaney were involved in on the final lap. While analyzing their moves on Fox and via video replay afterward, Gordon faulted no one.
Pushing and shoving at Daytona and Talladega isn’t for the faint of heart. It is simply the price of having a shot at winning.
“On the final laps of every race, the drivers put themselves in situations where all they’re thinking about is, ‘What can I do to win this race?’ They’re not thinking about safety; they’re not thinking about danger,” Gordon said. “The whole world around you slows down. It doesn’t feel like you’re going 200 miles an hour because your brain is locked on the environment you’re in and the prize you’re trying to achieve. And in the Daytona 500, it’s a slightly different mind-set. It’s a chess game.”
In this case, Blaney was within his rights to push Newman, just as Hamlin had pushed Newman earlier. But when Newman drifted high to fend off Blaney’s would-be pass for the lead, with victory in sight, Blaney dropped a bit lower, trying another lane. One tap sent Newman into the wall, setting off a wild chain of events that was neither intentional nor out of bounds in Gordon’s view.
“If you’re coming off Turn 4 in the Daytona 500 to win the race, all things are acceptable,” he said.
On this day, Hamlin was the chess master, timing his final move perfectly.
It was the wildest Daytona 500 that Gordon has covered, he said, starting with the landing of Air Force One and President Trump’s arrival Sunday, the palpable electricity in the stands, the rainout that drained the life out of the crowd and Monday’s dramatic finish. In a race with 23 lead changes, Hamlin won by 0.014 seconds.
The outcome confirmed Gordon’s belief that Hamlin is the most skilled active restrictor-plate racer. It also was a testament to NASCAR’s strides in making its cars safer, and Gordon said he’s confident the sport will advance its knowledge further based on data downloaded from Newman’s battered car.
Above all, Gordon believes, this year’s Daytona 500 was a rebuttal to any fan who complains that NASCAR’s safety measures have robbed the sport of drama.
“These guys are putting themselves out there, and they choose to,” Gordon said. “They love it; I loved it. I crashed plenty of times, and it scares the heck out of you. But it’s a part of our sport that will always be there — no matter what.”