By David Morgan, Associate Editor
Storming toward the finish line in last year’s running of the Daytona 500, it was anyone’s guess on who would be hoisting the Harley J. Earl trophy as the victor.
Suddenly, that was the least of worries for all those in attendance at the World Center of Racing when a violent crash broke out, sending Ryan Newman to the hospital and leaving fellow drivers worried about the fate of their comrade.
Thankfully, Newman was released from the hospital a couple of days later, walking out hand in hand with his daughters, and returned to the cockpit in May, having only missed three races in the process.
A year later, the three major players in that incident, Newman, Ryan Blaney, and Corey Lajoie, return to Daytona, ready to battle it out once again in the Great American Race.
Newman made his return to the track that nearly took his life for the first time since his crash back in September for the regular season finale, but coming back for the Daytona 500, the Roush Fenway Racing driver knows how special it would be to be able to complete the comeback by capturing a second win in NASCAR’s crown jewel event.
“That was the hope even back in September of whatever it was when we raced there was to be able to have that dramatic chapter come to an end with a victory and a playoff berth,” said Newman. “It would be even more special to come back a year later and really in all reality just to have an opportunity to come as close as we did last year would be amazing as well.
“I’ve been around this sport long enough to know that there are drivers that have never got a top 10 let alone a top five, or in my case a top 10 on the roof, let alone have a shot at the Daytona 500 the way I did last year. So just being in the hunt again will be an amazing feeling.”
Though Newman has no recollection of the crash, the Purdue educated engineer noted he has spent countless hours watching footage of the incident, hoping to help push the safety of the sport further.
“I’ve watched every angle that I could possibly watch,” Newman said. “The biggest problem is I don’t have any memory of my own angle, which is the ultimate angle, and that’s gone and that will always be gone no matter how many times I watch a replay or different variation of that replay. It doesn’t change my personal memory because it just doesn’t exist. I will continue to study and watch, whether it’s my crash or somebody else’s crashes.”
Newman added that the crash has changed him personally, as any incident of that magnitude would, giving him a new perspective on life going forward.
“It’s opened my eyes and made me more appreciative of a lot of things in life, and probably a little bit more positive and I guess jolly, you could say, in respect to some of the other things that don’t go so well. I feel like it has magnified my personality for all the positive things, and therefore decreased some of the negative things. I don’t think that’s considered a change to me, that’s really just an adjustment.
“Which everybody needs at times, and we all say it. Like, ‘he deserved that or he had that coming for him.’ Those are the things that we use to educate ourselves and, again, God works in mysterious ways and I’m happy to be here sitting and talking to you. It makes me appreciate things as well.”
As far as the other two drivers involved in Newman’s crash, Blaney and Lajoie have been processing things in their own way.
Lajoie, whose family is in the race seat safety business, noted that despite the elevated danger that the superspeedways present, the fact that all involved in the crash were able to walk away speaks volumes to the strides NASCAR has made in that department.
“You can chalk it up as part of the gig, right? Everybody is going to say that,” said Lajoie. “Even before that wreck, whether I was in it or not, you know Daytona and Talladega are places where you hug the wife for a couple of extra seconds and you pull the belts a little tighter. It’s just part of the game. That’s also why the fans gravitate to it because there is that element of danger to it, more so than the other places we go.
“I can turn the conversation over to the NASCAR R&D side, with how much they’ve been making our cars to be safer. For Ryan to take a hit like that and walk away it just goes to show the work those guys at NASCAR are doing to keep us safe.”
Blaney took things a bit harder, shouldering much of the blame on himself, which naturally took time to get past. He added that he has made a concerted effort to not watch footage of the crash and has instead been focusing on moving forward.
“That was tough, really tough,” said Blaney. “Things happen so fast in that moment. You like to say that you plan for all these things, moves you’re gonna make and things like that. You can try to plan for them as much as you can, but you have a split-second to decide what you’re gonna do and things just happen so quick. Good things can happen so quick and really bad things can happen really fast and it’s hard to process that because honestly, I don’t think about any of that stuff. You never go into a race thinking you’re going to be a part or get hurt in a race car.
“You just never think about that, and that was a rough night for sure – not knowing any updates on Ryan. Even though it was not intentional you’re still a part of the wreck, so that was definitely tough. Really, the time I felt relief was when Amy Earnhardt texted me the next morning and said she was talking to their family and gave me some updates, and I was able to talk to Ryan a couple days after that.
“But, yeah, it took me a little bit to get over. I don’t watch that anymore. I watch the 500, but I stop watching right off turn four. I just don’t want to see it. You learn from what move you could have made, but I don’t watch that and try not to think about it.”
While Newman couldn’t recall the conversation between the two on the phone, he does remember getting a chance to talk to Blaney in person in the weeks that followed, with the conversation earning him new respect for Blaney, who was visibly shaken after the crash.
“I think I had a personal conversation with him on the phone, I don’t remember it,” Newman said. “But I do remember putting my arm around him and talking to him in Phoenix after I got a chance to see him face-to-face and I could see his character and what he was feeling internally because of what happened after him seeing me.
“So, I can only imagine what it was like not knowing or that night of or the days after, so that’s one of the toughest things that we do as drivers is have to check our feelings because of what we do and the things that are required of us to be competitive and to push everybody’s envelope and it’s just the way it is. The guys that get it, and I believe he does, have a lot of respect for that and therefore I have more respect for him.”