DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — So what in the world did we just witness?
Years from now, we’ll still be talking about it and trying to make sense of the wildest week of racing in the history of Speedweeks.
In the end, Ryan Newman was in Halifax Medical Center in stable condition after a harrowing crash that ended the race and left people convinced they’d just seen a miracle. Newman was alert and speaking with family and doctors today.
The grinding, flame-throwing wreck in the final yards of the 62nd Daytona 500 left sports fans breathless and waiting for the news they all knew would be bad. There was simply no way a human could survive such a crash.
And yet, he did.
We have to be careful because we don’t know much at this point. The agonizing wait for details Monday night kept a nation of race fans in a state of numb anticipation, waiting for the worst, praying for the best.
Maybe that’s the only way he lived. Then again, people weren’t praying until the race was over, and Denny Hamlin and his team were celebrating without realizing how bad it looked for Newman or for themselves. Newman’s car was on fire and dripping gasoline. And it appeared the cockpit of his Ford was crushed.
Social media exploded, both in calls for prayer and for calm and for somebody to tell the Joe Gibbs Racing team to celebrate with some dignity. The truth is, Hamlin had no idea how bad the crash was, though the accident happened right in front of his team, which showed no remorse and began celebrating like, well, like they’d just won the Daytona 500.
In time, Gibbs apologized. And eventually, the sport was able to exhale.
Racing went through a lot this week. From the crash-filled Busch Clash on Feb. 9 to the Twin 150s on Thursday, the insane truck race on Friday and the wild Xfinity race on Saturday.
And then came Sunday.
Race fans flocked to Daytona International Speedway, where they were greeted by Secret Service agents wielding guns and wearing bullet-proof vests, a somber start to a day unlike anything we’ve ever seen in NASCAR.
The lines stretched in every direction as cars were inspected and then fans were scanned from head to toe, pockets emptied, bags checked and pocket knives confiscated.
The drivers themselves, already in uniform, were scanned. Even one of the driver’s dogs was patted down.
Not everyone had gotten in when a plane appeared overhead flying a low-altitude pass that was stunning in its grandeur and audacity. Air Force One flew slowly over the track as fans gasped and cheered and pointed their smartphones to the sky.
Eventually, more than 100,000 people gathered in the stands, spilling onto the banked tri-oval as President Trump and First Lady Melania Trump stood and waved, before he delivered a speech honoring the drivers and their chase of “pure American glory.” Then he gave the order to start engines before getting into the presidential limousine called “The Beast” and leading the cars on a parade lap.
It was a scene unlike anything in sports history.
And then the biggest rainstorm in sports history formed over the track, 20 laps into the race. Fox Sports said that more than 11 million people watched the start of the race, up more than 30 percent from last year and the most since 2015.
NASCAR again had to answer the question of why in the world it waited until 3:20 p.m. to start the race.
Fans weren’t ready for the weather. They waited until dark before NASCAR finally announced that the race would resume on Monday. And then the rain came harder as the fans walked out in a deluge, impossibly long lines of people, lost in the rain and the wave of wet humanity, some of them drunk, some of them crying in fear, some of them wandering aimlessly toward parking lots, though no one was able to see more than a few yards in front of them.
It was chaos as track security blew whistles and law enforcement blasted sirens and cars drove through mud, some of them headed in the wrong direction.
It was apocalyptic, almost biblical. It seemed surreal after the events only a few hours earlier.
The race finally restarted on Monday afternoon, many of the fans from Sunday having gone home.
They would watch the horrifying end of Speedweeks on their own televisions before a national vigil that would last into the night.
Drivers sat in shock in the garage, no one talking, no one knowing quite what to do. As the crash was shown over and over until Fox finally went off the air with no word from the trauma center, race fans went to social media to discuss and argue and call for prayers and decorum.
This was one of the hardest nights ever to be a race fan. Though it was once again a testament to why they are the most hardened and least understood fans in all of sports.
They saw an unbelievable week of racing, saw the president of the United States buzz the tower just above their heads, lived through a storm out of Revelation and ultimately watched a race that began on Sunday afternoon and ended Monday night with a driver feared dead and a sport preparing for an awful aftermath.
The 2020 Daytona 500 wasn’t a sporting event. It was an experience that forced fans to stop and pause and take stock of the sport and life itself.
Those of us who braved the elements and long drive down were drawn out of tradition and the timeless quality of the greatest stock car race in the world. We didn’t just endure it; we survived it.
Newman still needs your prayers. We don’t know what his future holds. NASCAR is a traveling circus that never really ends. The long pause Monday night was something only race fans understand.
No matter what, there’s another race this week.
We’re not driving to Vegas this week, though. Many of us need to go to church instead.