I really needed to wait for almost a day to figure out what exactly to write here. What we saw on Monday night, after what was a calm and rather competitive, Daytona 500 stole the headlines worldwide. For one night, no questions about politics nor about laws and policies, but it became about one individual.
My hope was my new post-race article would be celebrating a back-to-back champion of this race, hoping to make room for not only another trophy, but likely another car. Instead, that driver got ridiculed to no end, and in all honesty it was not justified.
More on that later on.
The reality is after a competitive race that started on Sunday, only to be moved to Monday afternoon and evening, we are not talking about the winner. Sure, maybe a bit, but not in the way he probably wants. Instead we are talking about someone who was practically a football field away from his second win in the sport’s biggest event. Instead, we’re talking about Ryan Newman in another violent accident at one of the sports two biggest super speedways, with this one making every heart sink like an anchor.
Newman has long seemed to be the pinball of Daytona and Talladega, with many incidents dating back to 2003 at this same race, but this one seems so much different.
It was 19 years ago that we all had this sinking feeling in our stomach, the same one we had last night, when we saw a black Chevrolet Monte Carlo sitting in turn 4, alongside a yellow Pontiac Grand Prix. One man was celebrating his first-career victory in the sport’s biggest race, not knowing less than half mile away his owner’s car sat silent in the infield.
The words of Darrell Waltrip, after he experienced his brother, Michael, win the race, still are clear to this day.
“I hope Dale’s okay. I mean, I guess he’s alright, isn’t he?”
Then came another interview, this one with Ken Schrader, who looked into that black Monte Carlo to see if his fellow competitor, friend, and the rock of the garage area was alright. Four words are all it took to describe the mood in that instant.
“I’m not a doctor.”
A few hours later, Mike Helton stood in the media center at Daytona. No table, nor a chair Just a man with a microphone, and a feeling that something was going to be said that was going to be tough for all to hear.
“This is probably the hardest announcement that I’ve ever personally had to make. But, uh…after the accident on the last lap of the Daytona 500, we’ve lost Dale Earnhardt.”
Nineteen years later, nearly to the day, that same sinking feeling came over every individual at the Daytona International Speedway. The difference, at least at the track, is that the track workers made sure to take every precaution to try and keep fans, and even media, from looking in. Seeing the black screens come out to block out the flash bulbs, and media being directed out of the pit area, was a telling sign.
NASCAR made everyone, EVERYONE, wait. Sure the keyboard warriors kept making claims, but medical incidents are ones that no one should speculate on. I waited, with everyone else, hoping for the best, while expecting the worst.
To know that nearly 24 hours later, Newman is still with us, and is actually talking, means that the “Rocket Man” had a guardian angel looking over him. Makes me wonder if that guardian angel had on a pair of Gargoyle sunglasses and was showing off a smile underneath that lip-long mustache.
At the same time, we all saw the winner of that race actually celebrate his win, and then become more subdued shortly after.
This is something I will say about seeing Denny Hamlin celebrate with his crew on the front stretch while rescue workers were doing their job at Newman’s wreckage: Back off, because he did too.
Hamlin immediately after being told by the TV crew what was happening turned his celebration into being worried for another competitor. His owner, newly inducted Hall of Famer Joe Gibbs, was told in victory lane what happened and the current situation, he changed his outlook on what victory lane was about. Everyone was harping on Hamlin, and booing him like he was, frankly, Kyle Busch. Let it be known, Hamlin didn’t know. His spotter cut off his radio and immediately went to find out what was happening, thinking Hamlin was heading to victory lane, and not to the infield to do donuts.
Did he deserve that…not one bit, because afterward he outright came out and said he didn’t know until the TV crew told him. If his spotter or crew had said something before, he would’ve gone straight to victory lane. But he immediately switched his focus from his win to his competitor.
At least for that, he should be commended.
Now that the two-week run at Daytona has come to an end, the regular season can continue, or in some folks eyes, begin. The west coast run of races can now begin, although a week earlier. Let’s all head to Las Vegas, bet on black and let it ride.