Not a tragedy, but another miracle

Published 4:22 pm Friday, February 21, 2020

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I’m one of those people who remembers what they were doing at moments of historical significance: the King or Kennedy assassinations, space shuttle explosion, first moonwalk, 9-11, Dale Earnhardt’s crash at Daytona in 2001.

The finish of the 2020 Daytona 500 was the second time I thought I was witnessing a race car driver’s death. Luckily, that scenario didn’t come to fruition, but every time a driver survives a violent and horrifying wreck, it’s a reminder of not only how dangerous motorsports can be, but how we, as racing fans, see real-life miracles all the time.

Monday, in a three-way battle for the win between Ryan Newman, Ryan Blaney and eventual winner Denny Hamlin, Blaney was pushing Newman to the finish line because if he couldn’t win, he said he wanted their manufacturer, Ford, to be in Victory Lane rather than Hamlin’s Toyota.

But, as Blaney would explain after the race, ‘bumpers got hooked up wrong and he got turned’, slamming Newman into the wall before being hit head-on by Corey LaJoie, going airborne, and landing upside down. With sparks and flames shooting out of it, Newman’s car slid from the track to the end of pit road.

At least he crossed the finish line.

Why’s that matter? Because come September and the new playoff format beginning at Darlington, that ninth-place finish (which has him sixth in the points entering Las Vegas on Feb. 23) could be the difference in making the round of 16.

More incredibly than that? How about being cut out of your wrecked car, transported to a nearby Daytona Beach hospital, and then going home less than two days later.

It’s an actual miracle that less than 48 hours from being in ‘serious’ condition Monday night, Newman was walking out of the hospital hand-in-hand with his daughters.

Whether watching live, or from the comfort of my recliner, I’ve seen stock cars flip, barrel roll down the straightaway, land spinning upside down, or catch on fire. I’ve seen a lot of scary, violent crashes, and the drivers involved almost invariably walk away unharmed.

Make no mistake, these guys are flirting with death out there. But no driver has been killed in NASCAR Cup racing since Dale Earnhardt on the last lap of the Daytona 500 some 19 years ago. And that’s thanks to advancements in safety technology.

Massive, multi-car wrecks are a given at tracks like Daytona, just witness the carnage at this year’s Busch Clash. Eighteen cars take the green flag, but only six – just one-third of the field – were running at the checkers.

But the frequency at which giant wrecks occur and drivers largely being uninjured is also a testament to how safe the sport has become while living on the razor-thin line of disaster.

Blaney was noticeably, and understandably, shaken up by the crash. Much like Sterling Marlin did Earnhardt 19 years ago, he didn’t spin Newman out on purpose. He said he just wanted to help get a Ford teammate across the finish line first and clearly felt awful about something beyond his control.

“I hope he’s alright,” Blaney said on pit road Monday night. “You never want to see anyone get hurt.”

As of Wednesday, when he flew home, it appears Newman is all right. Although we don’t know specifics of the injuries he may have suffered, he went from serious condition on Monday night to fully alert and joking around on Tuesday to walking out of the hospital on Wednesday.

That timeline is a miracle itself, and evidence that even though racing can never be too safe and should always strive to improve, maybe drivers are more protected than we realize.

So, if every awful wreck serves as a reminder of how dangerous NASCAR can be, every driver walking away ought to be a reminder that every weekend in this sport we witness miracles all the time.

Gene Motley is a Staff Writer at Roanoke-Chowan Publications. Contact him at or 252-332-7211.