For several hours Monday night, NASCAR was thrust into the national spotlight following Ryan Newman’s terrifying crash in the closing moments of the Daytona 500. News of the accident spread like wildfire on social media, and it wasn’t long before network news outlets aired replays of Newman’s mangled car on TV.
It’s arguably the most national exposure NASCAR has received since Dale Earnhardt’s fatal crash in the same race 19 years prior. Only this time, the narrative was different. This story had a happy ending.
It has long been said, and rightfully so, Earnhardt’s most lasting impact is the sweeping safety enhancements NASCAR imposed in response to his death. It is Earnhardt’s legacy. That legacy was on display Wednesday afternoon as Newman walked out of the hospital, holding his daughters’ hands, less than 48 hours after one of the scariest crashes in recent memory.
It was a banner moment for NASCAR.
Let me expound. Like many in the NASCAR world, I feared the worst. The aftermath of Newman’s crash felt all too familiar with flashbacks of 2001 creeping into our minds. From the tone of Mike Joy and Jeff Gordon in the TV booth to the gut-wrenching slow-motion replays, nothing gave you the impression everything was okay. It was only a few hours later when word came that Newman was alive, and his injuries were not life-threatening that we could finally exhale. And then came Wednesday. Count me among those who were shocked when Roush-Fenway Racing happily announced on Twitter that Newman had been released from the hospital.
Think about that for a moment. Monday, we just hoped and prayed Ryan Newman was alive. Today, we’re wondering how soon he’ll be back behind the wheel of his No. 6 Ford.
It’s a victory lap for NASCAR, and anyone else responsible for making the cars, equipment, and tracks safe. It reinforces just how far the sport has come since that dark day in 2001. Are the circumstances ideal? Of course not. But when NASCAR’s safety measures were put to the test on the grandest stage in front of a nationwide audience, they passed with flying colors.
Not So Fast
However, a case can (or should) be made that Ryan Newman never should have been put in such a compromising position. It is time to reexamine superspeedway racing at Daytona and Talladega.
The current product does not work. Drivers are forced into a box where they have no choice but to shove, gouge, and block for position. That’s fine at Martinsville. When it happens at a superspeedway, we get this year’s Busch Clash and the final 25 laps of the Daytona 500.
The Great American Race should showcase the best NASCAR has to offer. It attracts the most eyeballs and garners the most attention from national media. Instead, Daytona sends a message that maybe these aren’t the best drivers in America.
To die-hard NASCAR followers, we know that’s not true. But what about the casual fan? The fan NASCAR is trying to attract and perhaps even bring back? I read a tweet Monday night that caught my attention. This is just one person’s opinion, but I think it’s reasonable.
Professor Beard is right. It is excessive. While multi-car crashes have been the norm since the introduction of the restrictor plate, this version of racing looks and feels different. Dale Earnhardt Jr. touched on this very topic on his most recent episode of the Dale Jr. Download.
“It’s not up to me, but if it were, I would make some changes to the package,” said Earnhardt Jr. “I’d make the cars harder to drive. I’d take downforce away from them at those particular race tracks and get them to where they’re working on handling.
“I enjoyed the style of plate racing many, many years ago. It has had so many different forms. Even in the last decade, it has changed so many times with even the smallest minute little change to the plate or the spoiler, whatever it may be. It really affects visually what you watch and how the cars react to each other. Nothing about what I saw in that race makes me want to go out there and do that. And I love racing at Daytona and Talladega. I love getting out there in those cars. You know by watching the Clash and the Daytona 500, no matter what, they’re going to destroy 80 percent of the field. What kind of odds are those?”
Strong words from one of the best superspeedway racers in NASCAR history.
Let it be known, this is not a knee-jerk reaction to Newman’s crash. The accident does, however, illuminate a glaring problem. Today’s superspeedway racing is a bad look for NASCAR, as it undermines the credibility of the sport and its world-class talents. Simply put, drivers are placed in a position to fail, which in turn, increases the possibility of something going horribly wrong.
We avoided catastrophe this time. Next time, we may not be so fortunate.