DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — For the second straight year, Denny Hamlin and team owner Joe Gibbs were in Victory Lane at the Daytona 500. But they quickly halted their celebrations once they learned Ryan Newman was being attended to by safety crews on the track at Daytona International Speedway after being involved in a horrific crash on Monday night.
For part of the final lap of the biggest NASCAR Cup Series race of the season, Newman, in the No. 6 Ford, was out front, thanks to a momentous push from Ryan Blaney in the No. 12 Ford. But Blaney made contact with Newman, whose car turned, flipped upside down and slid from the track to pit road as fire and sparks shot out of it.
In Victory Lane, Gibbs apologized for his team’s celebration, which stopped once they realized emergency crews were attending to Newman, who was taken to a local hospital.
Newman is “in serious condition, but doctors have indicated his injuries are not life threatening,” his Roush Fenway Racing team said in a statement Monday night.
“We’re praying for Ryan,” Hamlin said in Victory Lane.
Afterward, Blaney, who finished second, explained that if he wasn’t able to win, he wanted to push Newman to the lead to ensure a Ford teammate would end up in Victory Lane.
As they came out of Turn 4 and onto the frontstretch toward the finish line, Blaney’s and Newman’s cars “just got bumpers hooked up wrong and turned him,” the No. 12 Ford driver explained afterward. Blaney, noticeably shaken up as he spoke to the media, repeatedly emphasized spinning Newman was unintentional.
Initially, Hamlin celebrated his third Daytona 500 win with a burnout on the grass near the finish line in front of the grandstands.
The No. 11 Toyota team’s crew chief, Chris Lambert, said on Twitter that he takes all the blame for Hamlin’s celebration and said he did not communicate over the radio what he saw happening with Newman and his car to the winning driver.
In his post-race press conference, Hamlin said he didn’t learn about the severity of Newman’s wreck until FOX Sports’ Jamie Little told him there wouldn’t be an immediate interview at the finish line.
“It’s a weird balance of excitement and happiness for yourself, and obviously, someone’s health and their family’s bigger than any win in any sport,” Hamlin said. “So we’re just hoping for the best.”
After apologizing in Victory Lane for the No. 11 team’s celebration, Gibbs again apologized during his press conference with Hamlin and Lambert.
“I knew that there was a (wreck), but I never even focused over there (by Newman’s car),” Gibbs said, expressing the need to continue explaining himself.
“I was focused on our car, and everybody started celebrating it around us. So I said to everybody out there, some people may have saw us and said, ‘Well, these guys are celebrating when there’s this serious issue going on.’ So I apologize to everybody, but we really didn’t know. We got in the winner’s circle, and that’s when people told us later.”
Gibbs added that scary incidents like this hit particularly hard because NASCAR is “such a close-knit community.” He said he is praying for the best for Newman, adding: “Racing for us, we know what can happen. You just don’t dream that it would happen.”
Especially with all the wrecks at Daytona — the massive crashes that seem inevitable are known as “the big one” — Hamlin said he feels especially “fortunate” to have started his full-time Cup Series career in 2006, after serious safety measures were being applied following the death of Dale Earnhardt Sr. on the last lap of the 2001 Daytona 500.
“NASCAR has done a fantastic job of evolution of race cars,” Hamlin said. “Helmet manufacturers, suit manufacturers, HANS devices (head and neck support), there’s just been so much development that’s come a long way, and I always think about how blessed I am to come in this sport in 2006 when all that stuff was really being implemented.
“Before competition, you have to have a car that’s safe,” Hamlin continued. “And the sport’s been very fortunate to not have anything freak or weird happen for many, many years. But a lot of that is because of the development and the constant strive to make things better and safer. I thank my lucky stars every day that I came in the sport when I did.”