(Photo: Nigel Kinrade Photography)

Thinkin’ Out Loud: 2020 Daytona 500

The Headline(s): Denny Hamlin snuck past Ryan Blaney on the final lap of the second overtime to win the 2020 Daytona 500, his second consecutive victory in the Great American Race and third of his career. For Hamlin, it’s also his 38th career Cup victory and 57th NASCAR national series win.

Unfortunately for Hamlin and the No. 11 team, the celebration was cut short, as Ryan Newman was involved in one of the most violent wrecks Cup racing has seen this century on the final lap. The 42-year-old veteran had to be extracted from his No. 6 car by medical personnel under cover of a black screen as silence enveloped the racetrack.

Newman was transported to a local hospital, where he is listed in serious condition, but thankfully with non life-threatening injuries.

LATEST UPDATES ON RYAN NEWMAN’S CONDITION

How It Happened: After 20 laps of single-file racing Sunday before torrential rains postponed the 500, the race resumed under sunny skies Monday with Brad Keselowski leading the field back to green on lap 26 following pit stops. With the entire field trying to save fuel to make it to the first stage break, Keselowski and Almirola would battle for the lead until lap 44, when the Fords’ fuel conservation efforts and suave drafting by the Hendrick Motorsports quartet sent Chase Elliott into the lead.

However, the Hendrick party would get partially derailed on lap 59 when contact from Ricky Stenhouse Jr. sent William Byron into the wall. Elliott would persevere on the lap 64 restart to score the first stage win of 2020.

Toyota drivers, who rode at the back for stage one (or, as Kyle Busch put it, forfeited), stayed out under the stage break. On the lap 72 restart, Hamlin led the field to the green, where he remained until a lap 90 incident saw Quin Houff wreck after cutting across the nose of Aric Almirola on the backstretch.

Hamlin kept the lead with a two-tire pit stop, and would head the field from lap 96 through the end of stage two despite a fervent challenge from pole sitter Stenhouse (who also nearly turned the No. 11 with a bump draft on lap 100.)

Hamlin would again hold the lead through pit stops and take the field to green on lap 136. However, the intensity immediately ramped up as the final stage began. Hamlin lost the lead to Stenhouse on lap 137, who then fell victim to the first major tandem draft of the race that saw Penske teammates Blaney and Joey Logano rocket to the front on lap 138. From there, the draft was on. Blaney, Stenhouse, Kyle Busch and Keselowski all took turns at the point up until lap 164, when Logano assumed the top spot. With Stenhouse forced to pit road for a yellow-line penalty on lap 159, he was out of the lead pack when green flag pit stops began on lap 171.

Any shot Stenhouse had at recovering from his penalty went out the window three laps later, when contact from Erik Jones sent his No. 47 spinning with heavy damage to its hood. Despite the contact, the race stayed green, a precedent NASCAR had set earlier in the weekend and stuck to it. Simultaneously, Cole Custer was seen smoking on track as Martin Truex Jr. bellowed on his radio that the No. 41 was dropping fluid on the racing surface. But track spotters deemed the track clear, and the race continued without incident until lap 182.

That’s when Kyle Busch was seen smoking with what the team first thought was a tire rub; it was later determined to be a blown engine. Before Busch pulled off track, however, the “Big One” finally struck on lap 184. A poorly-timed bump draft by Logano pushed Almirola into Penske teammate Keselowski, triggering a massive 19-car wreck on the backstretch that brought out the red flag.

The lap 191 restart saw another tandem take the lead at Daytona, this time the Fords of Logano and Newman. Their charge forward got derailed on lap 193 when the caution flew again, this time after Reed Sorenson cut a tire and shot in front of Timmy Hill, causing heavy damage to both machines. The field was set free again on lap 197, with Hamlin using the tandem to push Newman out front before taking the lead from him after turn 4 exit on lap 198.

That’s only to see the yellow come back out when the second “Big One” struck after heavy racing between Ryan Preece and Ross Chastain saw the No. 77 clip the apron and bounce into oncoming traffic. The incident and resulting red flag saw the 500 head into overtime.

NASCAR’s first attempt at an overtime was derailed just as it got started, with an accordion-like wreck on the restart seeing contact between Michael McDowell and Clint Bowyer collect Justin Haley and send the No. 14 plowing through the infield grass.

The second and final overtime decided the race. Though Hamlin was the only Toyota in a sea of Fords, his car proved strong enough to stay within striking distance of the tandem of Blaney and Newman that took the lead on the backstretch. When a bump draft between the two sent Newman into the tri-oval wall, Hamlin snaked through to nip Blaney at the line. 

Drivers Who Accomplished Something

Scoring his third career Daytona 500 victory, Hamlin joined the ranks of Bobby Allison, Jeff Gordon and Dale Jarrett as three-time winners of the Great American Race. That’s the definition of accomplishment. That Hamlin won this race as a lone Toyota racing against six Fords with manufacturer orders to make sure a Blue Oval won was just gravy.

Making his debut in his return to Roush Fenway Racing, Chris Buescher’s third-place finish, along with Newman’s ninth-place result, allowed RFR to place two cars in the top 10 of the 500 for the first time since 2014. Buescher’s comments to Frontstretch earlier in Speedweeks about the team’s new energy showed up on-track.

KEITH: CHRIS BUESCHER BUYING IN AT ROUSH FENWAY

Both David Ragan and Brendan Gaughan ended their final Daytona 500 starts with a bang; Ragan finished fourth, his career-best 500 result and his first top five at Daytona since 2011. Gaughan’s seventh-place finish tied his career-best at Daytona.

Ragan’s teammates at Front Row Motorsports (yes, I know the No. 36 was technically a Rick Ware Racing charter, but let’s be real here) both finished in top 15 (John Hunter Nemechek was 11th and McDowell 14th). It’s the first time in the history of FRM (over 1,000 starts) that the team has put three cars in the top 15.

Drivers Who Accomplished Nothing

For as much flak as Stenhouse got for his involvement in the lap 59 incident with Byron, it sure looked on the replay that Byron made a half-hearted jump out of line right as Stenhouse sent him spinning. It’s not the first time Byron has made a questionable move in turn 3 at Daytona… just ask Keselowski.

Speaking of Keselowski, he was exhibit A of a forgettable night for Team Penske. Keselowski was a victim of the first Big One on lap 184, the second time he’s been collateral damage in an incident created by teammate Logano this Speedweeks. Logano’s aggression to win proved all for naught when he got bodyslammed in the lap 197 Big One. Finally, while Blaney was the runner-up finisher, his efforts to put a Ford in victory lane (Newman’s) resulted with Newman in a wreck and Hamlin first across the finish line. Ugly night for the Captain.

Houff’s debut as a full-time Cup driver did nothing to assuage doubts about his replacing Landon Cassill in the No. 00, as he appeared entirely at fault cutting across Almirola’s No. 10 on the backstretch on lap 90. Said Almirola’s spotter, almost gleefully after the incident, “I think he [Houff] is done blocking today.”

For the second time this Speedweeks, Christopher Bell had trouble on pit road, this time missing his box during the first stage break. Though he showed speed late (before the lap 197 Big One smashed him up), his No. 95 was not the factor it was a year ago with Matt DiBenedetto behind the wheel. 

Jimmie Johnson got caught up in the lap 184 Big One and finished his last 500 in 36th, his worst result in the race since 2012. Further, listening to the man whose last Cup win came in last year’s Clash by wrecking the entire field chastise Logano for aggressive drafting was hypocrisy defined.

Insights, Opinions and Fake News

Few even at Frontstretch know that Newman was the first driver I ever rooted for, starting after his 2003 Dover spring race win without power steering, a victory he earned while irking Tony Stewart for refusing twice to gift him a lap coming to the yellow. I won’t pretend to know the man, but from the few times I have spoken to him, Newman is a racer I have tremendous respect for, both for his skill behind the wheel and his intelligence when it comes to race cars.

I didn’t start watching NASCAR until 2003, so I’ve been fortunate to never see a driver fatality in a major stock car race. When I saw the replay of his last-lap wreck Monday night, I broke down crying in front of my TV, for I thought that streak was over. The hours that I spent between the end of the 500 and the 10:00 p.m. statement that confirmed Ryan was alive were the worst I’ve had covering the sport, and I cried again in a very different way when Steve O’Donnell made his announcement.

Looking back on those hours of uncertainty, chatting online with my fellow Frontstretchers as we waited for news, the night felt very eerie up until Mr. O’Donnell delivered the news we all wanted to hear. Eerie, I was told, in the same way it felt in February 2001 when the sport lost the late Dale Earnhardt. 

Since Earnhardt’s death in 2001, as well as the death of Blaise Alexander in ARCA competition that same year, NASCAR has made very significant strides with regard to driver safety. All Cup drivers now must wear the HANS device (of note, Newman was one of the last full-time Cup drivers to switch from the Hutchens to the HANS). The Gen-6 cars, in additional to foam padding around the roll cage, moved the driver’s seat further into the interior of the car. SAFER barriers are now mandated at all Cup tracks, and fortunately at Daytona, are on every wall surface. All of that effort, all of that expense, meant that on an eerie night 19 years after hearing we’ve lost the Intimidator, the word from Halifax Hospital was we’ve still got our Rocketman. 

LUNKENHEIMER: SUPPORT FOR RYAN NEWMAN POURS IN AFTER DAYTONA CRASH

While NASCAR is to be commended for the strides that have been made since 2001 in that regard, in another way Monday’s race seemed as if no lessons had been learned at all. Despite Newman’s wreck occurring on the frontstretch at pit road exit, in front of the entire Daytona Rising grandstand, nothing was done to curb the enthusiasm of Hamlin or his No. 11 team. While caught up in the moment, they did donuts on the infield grass as medical crews worked on Newman’s wrecked car. Victory lane still saw confetti being shot in the air, scheduled Tweets congratulating Hamlin on winning the 500 went out, and FOX’s Twitter page even went as far as to post videos of the wreck that sent Newman to the hospital hours before his condition was known. NASCAR Xfinity Series driver Josh Williams said it best in a now-deleted Tweet (the referenced video replay of the wreck was eventually taken down by FOX Sports) that read “Can we stop with this video please from all racers across the world to you please take this down. I still get sick watching this.”

Williams was far from alone.

How the hell is it possible that the same sanctioning body and broadcast network that had to deal with the death of Earnhardt in this same race at this same track in 2001 allowed, 19 years later, for a driver and team to get so far into celebrations that Coach Gibbs had to apologize from victory lane for not knowing Newman was in real danger? For God’s sake, there’s a reason Hamlin got peppered with boos when he celebrated in the infield grass, and it wasn’t because he did anything wrong in winning. It was because he appeared to be dancing for joy on what could have been a literal grave. 

That’s not on Hamlin; any driver that just won the 500 is going to get caught in the moment. Plus, as Hamlin’s spotter noted, radio comms to the driver were not available as he began celebrating.

This one is solely on NASCAR and FOX — both for being tone-deaf in the face of a dire accident, and for seemingly taking the safety of today’s cars for granted. As vigilant as NASCAR has been on the safety front since 2001, Monday night showed that vigilance may not be as eternal as it needs to be. I hope to God I’m wrong.

Between the Busch Clash and the Daytona 500, overtime restarts junked millions of dollars of racecars and resulted in one of the most violent crashes in modern NASCAR history. Had the race ended under yellow at scheduled distance, it would have been decided by the Newman/Hamlin tandem. Was that really so bad an ending that necessitates overtime pileups? It’s the Daytona 500, let it go 500 miles and be done, just as with the YourStartUpName here 500 and any other Cup race.

The willingness of the Toyotas to “forfeit” stages like they did in search of a Daytona 500 win raises a valid question about whether stages are a good thing for a race where the win truly matters most. The new stage lengths meant that 67% of the race was basically a throw-away to get to the trophy dash. The 500 already has its own qualifying procedures; why not a stage-free race format?

I wrote a rosy commentary Saturday about seeing encouraging signs in NASCAR being more laissez-faire with officiating early in 2020. While that continued in a good way when NASCAR didn’t throw the yellow for the Stenhouse/Jones dustup on lap 174, there were warning signs the old touchy-feely NASCAR was still in the tower this season.

For one, the “uncontrolled tire” that Johnson’s team was penalized for under the caution before the lap 26 restart was absurd, as the lost tire never impeded any competitors. Yes, the No. 48 team got lucky that the pit road opening allowed the tire to roll from harm’s way, but pit selection is a direct result of good qualifying, which they achieved. Secondly, penalizing Stenhouse for going below the yellow line on lap 159 was laughable. For once, Stenhouse played the responsible adult on a superspeedway, going below the line to avoid a sure wreck, and NASCAR penalized him for it. Scheduled rant: Get rid of the yellow-line rule. It sure as hell didn’t save the field from Chastain’s dive-bomb on lap 197.

Watching a seemingly-defeated Keselowski react like a zombie to word that Logano triggered another wreck that collected him on lap 185 means he’s moved in the stages of grief from anger (slamming his hands against an ambulance in the Clash last Sunday) to either depression or acceptance. Either way, the way 2020 is going at Team Penske, Keselowski must be relishing a shot at free agency… this marriage is going sour.

Though the No. 27 car did land a few associate decals, Sorenson became the first driver since Tony Raines in 2003 to start the Daytona 500 without a primary sponsor. That’s grossly disappointing on a number of levels, especially seeing as even at the height of the start and park era a decade ago, Phil Parsons’ machines found sponsors after qualifying for the 500. It would have been nice to see the money spent to put a pop-up Wendy’s in the infield go on a blank car hood instead. For years, it was at least an urban legend that NASCAR worked to ensure sponsors were present for all cars that made the 500. Consider that one debunked. Though, as a former fellow Frontstretcher put it so accurately this morning, “Charter system, man. Charter system.” 

Let’s deal with the story that was the elephant in the room before Monday’s near-tragedy. Despite the security headaches and the politicking that was going both ways on Twitter and abusing the #Daytona500 and #nascar hashtags, it was a real coup for the sport to have the President of the United States make an appearance on Sunday. 

The gravity that such a visit lends to stock car racing is a boon for all racing fans and competitors alike. The real question I have is this one, though. What the hell are all these people either embracing the air Trump breathes or boycotting everything within 100 miles of his motorcade going to do with themselves once his presidency ends? Get a life. Might I suggest your local short track?

Finally, we’ll close with the obvious best paint scheme of Speedweeks: Byron’s. 

The flames on his ride were vintage No. 24, and to his credit, he showed some vintage No. 24 speed with it. For the 40-some odd laps, he was on the track anyway.

You Heard It Here Before

A 3:30 start and 7:15 finish (ET) for the Daytona 500? Personally, I don’t like it. As a right-coaster, that’s way too late for a race to start or end. And according to fans I have corresponded with on the left-coast, they liked having the races starting at 10:00 a.m. and ending at 2 in the afternoon so they could go out and enjoy the rest of their day. – Matt McLaughlin, 2007

Cue the Trump jokes here if you must. The reality is, the Daytona 500 was going to hit rain on Sunday whether it started at 3:18 to accommodate the President’s visit, or if it started around 2:30 as scheduled. The Daytona 500 needs to start at 1:00 p.m. ET. PERIOD. As I wrote in Thursday’s Thinkin’, Florida is vulnerable to showers 12 months a year, 24 hours a day. Starting at 1 leaves reaction time to deal with pop-up showers like the one that soured the start of the 500. 

It’s well-known the later start times come from the wishes of NASCAR’s TV partners, who remain a lucrative source of income and thus highly influential. But let’s take stock of what that start time cost this weekend. This was a huge weekend where NASCAR was getting it right. The Speedweeks races leading up to Sunday were the best in years. NASCAR was on top of PR with even the little things (ISC employees from Talladega Superspeedway were seen handing out water to ticket holders waiting in line to get through Secret Service security). 

And despite the President’s appearance becoming a massive national story that culminated in one of the greatest starting commands the sport has ever seen, within minutes that high was killed because the race was delayed for rain. In that hour it took to dry the track the first time, all those first-time viewers that tuned in from FOX News to FOX to see Trump didn’t stick around. All those potential converts to NASCAR tuned elsewhere. Not to mention that the 100,000 fans that actually packed the grandstand were just starting on what would be an hours-long hurry-up-and-wait marathon that ended with everyone soaking wet having seen only 20 or so parade laps.

To see a start time that defies natural law (meaning late afternoon rain in Florida) to satisfy a TV guide listing derail the sport’s biggest event on a day when everything was going so right was a crushing blow – and that’s long before Newman’s horrific incident. Chasing ratings doesn’t work if there’s nothing for viewers to watch. And believe me, there are few things more boring than a rain-delayed race.

What’s the Points? Come back when NASCAR heads back east in a month or so.

Where it Rated (with one can a stinker and a six-pack an instant classic): We’re going to make this a dry column. Racing’s collective prayers were answered shortly after 10:00 p.m. when it was confirmed the Rocketman is still with us. Race day ended well.

Dust Off the VCR: The Cup Series parties like it’s 2014 and heads west immediately following Speedweeks, tackling the 1.5-mile track at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Coverage from Sin City begins at 3:30 p.m. ET on FOX.

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15 comments

  1. Avatar

    FOX and NASCAR definitely screwed this up. While Denny lost communication with his crew, there were plenty of people from the FOX and NASCAR team that had to have known that a vehicle getting overturned then crushed in the window net would be severe. Some of the staff could and should have directed Denny’s car to pit road. You can’t fault the teams as they are going to get caught up in the moment as 2+months of work just paid off in the seasons biggest race.

    As for Stenhouse, if you are going to step out of line then step out. The guy has proved over his career that he can not determine the distance of his fenders to the cars around him. Feels like every superspeedway race we are talking about Stenhouse spinning someone or causing some type of wreck. As for the yellow line, it was the right call. To say he was forced, would be a loose definition as he left a lot of room between him and the other car as he went on by. If he was tighter on the door and below the yellow line I would let it slide but he chose to get separation to avoid getting stalled out, therefore, gained an unfair advantage, thus a penalty.

    Ross was force and shame on the cars spotter and drive communication not letting the 36? know that run was coming low. I still think Ross cut a right rear tire from the contact but it is hard to say. Gordon was convinced that was not that case tho. That was a nasty wreck as well that will (rightfully so) be overshadowed by Newman’s wreck.

    Thank God for safer barriers tho! There were several wrecks that would have been very very nasty tonight had that outside wall still been concrete.

    NASCAR might need to eliminate locking bumpers at the cup level as well. Several wrecks occurred last night due to drivers locking bumbers. The runs that these cars gain on a single car proved to be too much too handle last night.

  2. Avatar

    there was a race? i’ve blocked that out cause of the wreck on the last lap.

    they cannot run 200 mph hooked up like a locomotive.

  3. Avatar

    Hard to comment on anything but how ridiculous and dangerous plate racing is after what happened yesterday. Even without anyone getting seriously hurt, the amount of carnage of wrecked cars is a sin. Last week, after the Clash, I questioned what kind of person would love that kind of race when someone’s commented that they “loved it”. I stand by that comment. Anyone who loves seeing a race where 75% of the field get wrecked when traveling 200 mph either has no heart and brain or they have forgotten that there are human beings in those cars.

    When you are a race fan you realize that danger and wrecks come with the territory, however the pack racing at Daytona and Talladega, while creating breath taking viewing for fans, results in way too many wrecked cars when the dust settles. Any race where 75% of the cars are seriously damaged crosses the line from race to demolition derby and that is why real race fans should not “love” seeing races like that.

    I think with all the safety innovations that have been implemented and the fact that there haven’t been any deaths in almost 20 years, it’s easy to forget just how dangerous this sport can be. Perhaps this was a needed reminder to all of us who watch.

    • Avatar

      Thanks Bill. You saved me some trouble, as that’s pretty much what I was gonna say. Pack racing doesn’t just suck, it’s life-threatening.

  4. Avatar

    My take from speedweeks. is BK has to be fed up with his teammates at Penske Logano had a big hand in taking him out of both the duel and the 500. His other teammate Blaney screwed up a Ford win. I think next year BK will go back to Hendrick and drive the 48.Lew

  5. Avatar

    Since Nascar don’t enforce the blocking rule ,why don’t they run Daytona and Dega race like they run the Daytona 24 hr. race using the road course. Is yesterdays race what wonted to happen!

    • Avatar

      what Nascar wanted to happen.

      • Avatar

        I hate to say it but,,,, yes. NASCAR does want it that way, otherwise they’d find a way to end pack racing at 200mph (they’ve had 30+ years). But it’s easy to see why it is the way that it is. Races at Daytona and Talladega are the most watched and attended. No doubt the adrenalin rush watching the spectacle has a lot to do with it. I used to hate them when I had a favorite driver. It must be hell for family members of the drivers to watch. I’d be fine if they did run the 24 hour road course.

  6. Avatar

    There is no place to escape politics these days.

  7. Avatar

    If Brian was watching his event he must have been in pig heaven. Just what he wants.

  8. Avatar

    You cannot convince me that NASCAR cannot eliminate both blocking and pushing, both of which are causes of massive wrecks. Announcers continue to gleefully applaud both practices, even to the point of condemning drivers who do not do it. Yes, pushing creates greater speed, and yesterday it created three massive wrecks and seriously injured one of the finest men ever to get behind the wheel of a race car.

    Indycar and F1 have both eliminated blocking, they have a rule and enforce it successfully. Both cars are built such that pushing is impossible. Do not tell me that NASCAR is so stupid that it cannot do likewise.

    • Avatar

      Nascar could mandate smaller diameter (i.e. weaker) tubing for the area immediately behind the bumpers so that a hard bump draft would do damage and hurt your car’s aerodynamics. Keep the overall strength for safety, just move the big bars back about 6 inches.

  9. Avatar

    To every little kid who ever had a box of Matchbox or Hot Wheels cars, the #43 car had the coolest paint job. I mean, come on… the car had TEETH! It was painted like a fighter jet!

  10. Avatar

    I thought the best paint scheme was the Warthog Grin on the #43 Air Force car. That looked awesome!