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One year later, Ryan Newman undaunted in Daytona return

Ryan Newman says he has no memories of his severe crash at the end of last year’s Daytona 500.

In some ways, that’s good. He’s spared the trauma of reliving the experience of his No. 6 car’s multiple impacts and its prolonged, sparking skid on its roof.

In other ways, that’s bad. As he attempted to dissect and learn from replays of the wreck, he scoured video footage for as many viewpoints as he could find, studying the physics of how his car reacted to the forces pressing against it and observing the emergency response. There’s one key perspective he lacks.

“I’ve watched every angle that I could possibly watch. The biggest problem is, I don’t have any memory of my own angle, which is the ultimate angle,” Newman said Tuesday in a preseason video conference with reporters. “And that’s gone, and that’ll always be gone, and no matter how many times I watch a replay or a different variation of that memory, it doesn’t change my personal memory because it just doesn’t exist.”

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One year later, the memories still linger for the NASCAR garage, which held its collective breath after the conclusion of the 2020 edition of The Great American Race. Newman was whisked to a nearby hospital as fears spiked, and he miraculously walked out two days later under his own power — memories still blurry, but in relatively fine health after suffering a brain bruise and losing consciousness in the melee.

2020 Newman Daughters Hospital
Steve Newmark | Roush Fenway Racing

The experience never broke Newman’s resolve to return to the driver’s seat, and the 43-year-old veteran will be back for his 20th Cup Series season in an effort to place his name on the Harley J. Earl Trophy a second time in the Daytona 500 (Feb. 14, 2:30 p.m. ET, FOX, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio). The experience also kept Newman’s eye on contributions to NASCAR’s safety dialogue and his own larger approach to life, one that was altered in the wake of near-tragedy.

“People have asked me have you changed, and I continually say I haven’t changed, but what happens … it’s a magnifier,” Newman said. “The things that you love, you love more because you were potentially taken or a part of you was taken for even a little bit of time, even. Yeah, it’s opened my eyes and made me more appreciative of a lot of things in life, and probably a little bit more positive and I guess jolly, you could say, in respect to some of the other things that don’t go so well. I feel like it has magnified my personality for all the positive things, and therefore decreased some of the negative things.

“I don’t think that’s considered a change, to me, that’s just an adjustment.”

The crash sparked an investigation by NASCAR officials, working in conjunction with Newman’s Roush Fenway Racing team, into the car’s behavior, data analysis and the safety response. Competition officials updated the rules to further slow the cars at superspeedways and to add two roll bars to further stabilize the cockpit, among further safety measures.

Meanwhile, Newman was already planning his return. He was back at the track as an invested spectator just three weeks after the wreck, rejoining the team at Phoenix Raceway while Ross Chastain handled interim driving duties of the No. 6 Ford. Once NASCAR resumed its schedule in mid-May after the COVID-19 outbreak, Newman was cleared for competition and finished out the year — making a point to personally thank Daytona’s safety team for its efforts when the Cup Series returned there in August.

Though his career is in twilight, Newman came back undaunted, even at the large, high-banked ovals where the potential for peril has a higher peak. Having no memory of his year-ago trauma has helped that motivation. For now, he says, retirement can wait.

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“God works in mysterious ways, and one of those mysterious ways that I can’t answer is the deletion of that chapter, that part of my hard drive that was that day, so that I can’t remember the potential tragedy that wasn’t,” said Newman, an 18-time winner in NASCAR’s top division. “So I don’t have any fear because I don’t have any memory, and that was the same analogy I used. If you’ve ever been in a car accident or you know somebody that’s been in a car accident and they were conscious the whole time, they will always carry that fear with them. And I have no memory, so therefore, I have no fear.

“But it’s also my passion and my love and what I enjoy doing. It’s a paid hobby. It’s the most amazing job you could ever have, and that’s where my focus is. I’m just doing my best to continue and become a Cup champion. That’s the way I feel is I still have another opportunity and God’s given me that opportunity and I’ll enjoy it with my two beautiful girls and our team together.”

The lasting legacy of Daytona 2020 may be the testament to ongoing advancements in NASCAR’s safety initiative, one that was captured in the powerful image of Newman walking from Halifax Medical Center two days with daughters Brooklyn and Ashlyn by his side. His children watched him race in person for the first time since the accident at the Chili Bowl Nationals last month in Tulsa, and they’ve embraced the chance for him to be back at Daytona to potentially add to the 500 crown he first won in 2008 — and to add another lasting memory to his hard drive.

“It would be even more special to come back a year later and to really, in all reality, just to have an opportunity to come as close as we did last year would be amazing as well,” Newman says. “I’ve been around the sport long enough to know there’s drivers that have never even gotten a top 10, let alone a top five — or in my case, a top 10 on their roof — let alone have a shot at the Daytona 500 the way I did last year. So just being in the hunt again will be an amazing feeling, hopefully, and all the things that go along with it.”