When Ryan Newman straps into his No. 6 Roush Fenway Racing Mustang on Feb. 14 for the 63rd running of the Daytona 500, he will do so with one thing on his mind. If you think he will flashback to the events of a year ago, forget about it. He wants just one thing, to bring home the Harley J. Earl Trophy for the second time in his career.
NASCAR drivers, like most men and women in motorsports, are a special breed. They can be in a horrific crash, and if uninjured, be back for the next race. For those who need time off to heal, most will fight doctors to clear them. Some would call them adrenaline junkies or flat-out crazy, but the simple fact is, they never think about what could happen. There is but one focus — winning.
Newman has seen his share of wrecks, from watching them to being in them. He has been battered and bruised, but nothing like what happened in the Great American Race one year ago. You didn’t have to be a race fan to know what happened because it was inescapable. Newspapers, the internet, local and national news had wall-to-wall coverage. It was like seeing a car accident on the highway where everyone was rubbernecking. You couldn’t look away.
Will Ryan Newman's wreck lead to more NASCAR safety advances?
Newman is alive today mostly because of Dale Earnhardt, who died at the same track in the same race in 2001. The technological advances in safety likely saved the South Bend, Ind. native after one of the most horrifying wrecks in recent NASCAR memory. So when he was asked if there was any hesitation about returning to Daytona, he was unequivocal.
“I’ve had zero," Newman said in a Zoom call with the media Tuesday. "I’ve had people question me of if I’ve questioned it myself, no different than you, but the reality is — and I had this conversation just a little while ago doing an interview — God works in mysterious ways, and one of those mysterious ways that I can’t answer is the deletion of that chapter or that part of my hard drive that was that day so that I can’t remember the potential tragedy that wasn’t. So, I don’t have any fear because I don’t have any memory ... that was the same analogy I used with him was, if you’ve ever been in a car accident or you know somebody who has been in a car accident, and they were conscious the whole time, they will always carry that fear with them.
“I have no memory; therefore, I have no fear, but it’s also my passion and my love, and what I enjoy doing. It’s a paid hobby. It’s the most amazing job you could ever have, and that’s where my focus is. I just am doing my best to continue and try to become a Cup champion. That’s the way I feel is I still have another opportunity, and God has given me that opportunity, and I’ll enjoy it with my two beautiful girls and our team together.”
More Daytona 500 coverage: NASCAR Speedweeks, Daytona 500 ticket information
It's hard to quantify how fast changes would have happened had a lesser-known driver lost his life the way Earnhardt did, but one thing is clear — losing a legend on the track sends shockwaves through the industry.
So is The Intimidator’s legacy about the safety advancements since his death?
“I don’t think it’s a bigger legacy, but it’s a big part of his legacy,” Newman said. “There was nobody, in my opinion, that’s gonna remember Dale Earnhardt for the way that he died. People remember Dale Earnhardt for the way that he raced and the way that he lived, which go hand-in-hand. I didn’t know Dale Earnhardt as a farmer. There are YouTube videos out there and there are stories about it. I didn’t know Dale Earnhardt as a hunter. Again, there are stories out there, but I knew him as a racer. I knew him as the guy that drove the black 3 car, and if he didn’t win it outright, he’d knock somebody out of the way to get it done and stood in victory lane and smiled about it.
“A lot of people loved that and a lot of people hated that. That’s the legacy that I will always remember him by. Unfortunately, because of the way the book ended for him, there’s a different version of that legacy, and it has a different opinion. ... I feel fortunate that my book, or at least that chapter, didn’t end that way for me and we did learn a lot from what happened to him, what happened in that situation – a bad racing accident, no doubt. We learned a lot and we collectively have kept so many drivers alive since then because of the adjustments that have been made in the safety of our sport.”
When you see the accident in real-time, you have to wonder how Newman survived.
According to Dr. Barry Myers, Earnhardt died when his head whipped violently forward. With new restraints and other advances, Newman would not suffer the same fate, although he suffered “only” a brain injury. He was back in the car on May 17, missing just three events. The two-month NASCAR pandemic hiatus played a big part in the number of races lost, but he was back nonetheless.
“I had one competitive Cup start against Dale Sr. and wished I would have had a whole lot more just because he was an idol of mine. I really looked forward to the opportunity to get to race with him more and that obviously was cut short, but that [20th] anniversary is special, more now than ever, because of my anniversary being one year this coming February of the 500 of my big crash that I was able to walk away from. And the reality is the start of my crash was really no different than the start of his crash, which was basically the end of his crash. I can see the progression that we’ve had from a safety standpoint and that’s gonna be a topic of many, and hopefully not the end topic, when the checkered flag falls on February 14 of the 500. The real story will be the racing and not the last big crashes that we’ve had.”
The 2021 season will go a long way to determine whether Newman will be back for another season. It may be too early to think about it, but he is a free agent after the season. Stay tuned.