DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Ryan Newman flipped across the finish line Monday, his Ford upside down and on fire, a grim reminder of a sport steeped in danger.
Moments earlier, Denny Hamlin posted a second straight Daytona 500 victory in an overtime photo finish over Ryan Blaney. The celebration soon became muted as drivers awaited an update on Newman’s condition.
“I think we take for granted sometimes how safe the cars are,” Hamlin said. “But number one, we are praying for Ryan.”
Roughly two hours after the crash, NASCAR read a statement from Roush Fenway Racing that said Newman is in “serious condition, but doctors have indicated his injuries are not life threatening.”
During the wait for an update, President Donald Trump took to Twitter to express his concern. Trump a day earlier attended the race as the grand marshal, gave the command for drivers to start their engines and made a ceremonial pace lap around Daytona International Speedway before rain limited Daytona 500 action to 20 laps and caused it to be postponed for a day.
“Praying for Ryan Newman, a great and brave @NASCAR driver! #PrayingForRyan,” Trump tweeted.
Newman was one of several NASCAR drivers who attended a 2016 rally in Georgia when Trump was a presidential candidate.
NASCAR scrapped the traditional victory-lane party for Hamlin’s third Daytona 500 victory, rocked by Newman’s accident 19 years after Dale Earnhardt was killed on the last lap of the 2001 Daytona 500. Earnhardt was the last driver killed in a NASCAR Cup Series race.
Newman had surged into the lead on the final lap when Blaney’s bumper caught the back of his Ford and sent Newman hard right into the wall. His car flipped, rolled, was hit on the driver’s side by another car, and finally skidded across the finish line in flames.
It took several minutes for his car to be rolled back onto its wheels. Medical personnel used solid black barriers to block the view as the 2008 Daytona 500 winner was placed in a waiting ambulance and taken to a hospital. The damage to his Mustang was extensive — it appeared the entire roll cage designed to protect his head had caved — and officials would not allow his team near the accident site.
Drivers were stricken with concern, including a rattled Corey LaJoie, the driver who hit Newman’s car as it was flipping.
“Dang I hope Newman is ok,” he posted on Twitter. “That is worst case scenerio and I had nowhere to go but (into) smoke.”
Hamlin is the first driver since Sterling Marlin in 1995 to win consecutive Daytona 500s, but his celebration in victory lane was subdued.
Hamlin said he was unaware of Newman’s situation when he initially began his celebration. It wasn’t until Fox Sports told him it would not interview him on the frontstretch after his burnouts that the driver learned the accident was bad.
“It’s a weird balance of excitement and happiness for yourself, but someone’s health and their family is bigger than any win in any sport,” he said. “We are just hoping for the best.”
Team owner Joe Gibbs apologized after the race for the winning team celebration.
“We didn’t know until victory lane,” Gibbs said. “I know that for a lot of us, participating in sports and being in things where there are some risks, in a way, that’s what they get excited about. Racing, we know what can happen, we just dream it doesn’t happen. We are all just praying now for the outcome on this.”
Runner-up Blaney said the way the final lap shook out, with Newman surging ahead of Hamlin, that Blaney got a push from Hamlin that locked him in behind Newman in a move of brand alliance for Ford.
“We pushed Newman there to the lead and then we got a push from the 11 (Hamlin) … I was committed to just pushing him (Newman) to the win and having a Ford win it and got the bumpers hooked up wrong,” Blaney said.
Hamlin had eight Ford drivers lined up behind him as the leader on the second overtime shootout without a single fellow Toyota driver in the vicinity to help him. That allowed Newman to get past Hamlin for the lead, but the bumping in the pack led to Newman’s hard turn into the wall, followed by multiple rolls and a long skid across the finish line.
Hamlin’s victory last year was a 1-2-3 sweep for Joe Gibbs Racing and kicked off a yearlong company celebration in which Gibbs drivers won a record 19 races and the Cup championship.
Now Hamlin’s third victory puts him alongside Hall of Fame drivers as winners of three or more Daytona 500s. He tied Dale Jarrett — who gave JGR its first Daytona 500 victory in 1993 — Jeff Gordon and Bobby Allison. Hamlin trails Cale Yarborough’s four victories and the record seven by Richard Petty.
Hamlin triumphed this time after just the second rain postponement to another day in 62 years, a visit from Trump, a pair of red-flag stoppages and two overtimes. His 0.014 margin of victory was the second closest in race history. Hamlin’s decision over Martin Truex Jr. by 0.01 in 2016 was the closest finish.
Gibbs, a former NFL coach who won three Super Bowls, has four Daytona 500 victories as an owner.