In a single thrilling lap around NASCAR's most storied track, Denny Hamlin and Ryan Newman displayed the risks and rewards of the dangerous sport they both love.
Hamlin won his second consecutive Daytona 500 and third in five years on Monday night as he surged past Newman on the final lap of a second overtime shootout.
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The win came as Newman's car was turned hard into the wall, then flipped onto its roof, where he was helpless as he was hit in the driver's side by another car.
His car continued to skid upside down along the speedway and it crossed the finish line in flames as safety crews hurried to snuff out the fire and pry Newman loose.
It took several minutes for his car to be rolled back onto its wheels, and 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.
Two agonising hours after the crash, NASCAR read a statement from Roush Fenway Racing that said Newman was in 'serious condition, but doctors have indicated his injuries are not life threatening.'
Unaware race winner celebrates with burnouts
Hamlin, meanwhile, was trying to find the delicate balance of celebrating a milestone victory while showing proper respect to an injured driver.
Initially unaware of Newman's situation, Hamlin did victory burnouts and celebrated with his team.
Not until Fox Sports said it would not interview him did Hamlin learn the severity of the situation.
Team owner Joe Gibbs was apologetic for the No. 11 team's initial reaction.
“I was focusing on our car, and everybody started celebrating around us,” Gibbs said.
“So I say to everybody out there, some people may have saw us and said, 'Well, these guys are celebrating when there's a serious issue going on.'
“I apologise to everybody, but we really didn't know.”
The juxtaposition of Hamlin’s celebration and concern for Newman rubbed some fans the wrong way in the minutes after the crash.
Hamlin’s spotter, Chris Lambert, took to Twitter to apologise for not informing his driver of the seriousness of the situation.
1-For those hammering @dennyhamlin for his donuts,put the blame on me if u must blame anyone.I told him to slow down on backstretch & give the emergency staff time to roll,that we had a bad wreck.I saw DH get in line for lug nut check & assumed he was going straight to VL.— Chris Lambert (@3widemiddle) February 18, 2020
There was a mixed response to the aftermath of the race, with debate raging about how much information Hamlin would have had about the crash before he started celebrating.
Some said it was a bad look for the team, while others were willing to cut the driver some slack.
Celebration wasn’t on Denny Hamlin. It’s on NASCAR. Hold up ceremony. Hold up celebration. No victory lane. No confetti.— Darren Rovell (@darrenrovell) February 18, 2020
I don't buy there was no way for any message to get to Denny Hamlin about the Ryan Newman wreck. NASCAR, or his crew, needed to do that. It made Hamlin a horrendous optic.— Jason Smith (@howaboutafresca) February 18, 2020
His spotter tweeted about it. Said he immediately went over to Newman's spotter to try to get word on Newman. Forgot to radio Hamlin about the severity of the wreck in the meantime.— Justin (@ncraiderfan47) February 18, 2020
Still a bad look and a bad situation, though. Someone else should have realized.
The crash was a stark reminder of both the dangers of auto racing and the improvements NASCAR has made since 2001, when Dale Earnhardt was killed on the final lap of the Daytona 500. Earnhardt was the last Cup driver killed in a race and NASCAR has made massive safety improvements in the nearly 20 years since.
“I think we take for granted sometimes how safe the cars are,” Hamlin said.
“But number one, we are praying for Ryan.”
Mark Rushbrook, global director of Ford Performance Motorsports, acknowledged the delay for information on Newman.
“To hear some positive news tonight is a relief,” Rushbrook said.
“He is so respected for being a great competitor by everyone in the sport.”
Drivers thankful to hear positive news on Newman’s condition
Newman had taken the lead on the final lap when Ryan 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.
Drivers were stricken with concern, including Hamlin, the first driver since Sterling Marlin in 1995 to win consecutive Daytona 500's.
“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.”
Runner-up Blaney said he 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 ... I was committed to just pushing him to the win and having a Ford win it and got the bumpers hooked up wrong,” he said.
WITH THE ASSOCIATED PRESS