Ryan Newman began last season with a vicious, terrifying wreck that stunned anyone who was watching the edge-of-your-seat final lap of the 2020 Daytona 500. The Indiana native was leading and accelerating toward the finish line among a pack that included Ryan Blaney and Denny Hamlin. Contact turned Newman's No. 6 head-on into the outside wall as more cars in the pack behind tried to miss him. But Newman's car elevated and rolled into the air and came back down just as Corey LaJoie's No. 32 was arriving at the scene.
What followed was a brutal collision directly against Newman's driver's side window area. His car pirouetted in the air, rolled and came to a stop. Newman was knocked unconscious, forcing emergency workers to extricate him and transport him directly to the nearby hospital. For hours, the NASCAR world held its breath until news came that Newman had not suffered life-threatening injuries. It was a stunning outcome only eclipsed two days later when Newman, wearing no shoes, was shown walking out of the hospital. He had suffered a bruised brain but would return to racing.
The wreck drastically altered the trajectory of Newman's 2020 season for competitive purposes. In the span of that last quarter mile of the Daytona 500, Newman not only suffered a horrendous crash but also lost a win that would have earned his team an early lock in the NASCAR playoffs. His injuries compounded the issue by forcing him to sit for the next three events while Ross Chastain was tapped to fill in as a substitute driver. Though NASCAR granted Newman a waiver for the missed events upon his return after the series-wide pause for the pandemic, he never overcame the points deficit created from the absence and missed making the postseason.
In fact, Newman was never strong enough last season to make the playoffs anyway. In the 33 races he did complete, Newman delivered his worst average finish (20.0) over the course of a full year since his final season as a Team Penske driver in 2008. When the checkered flag dropped at Phoenix International Raceway last fall, Newman was ranked 25th in the driver rankings. Even if Newman had scored the same average amount of points in the three races he missed, he would have only topped out at 22nd in points — easily shy of his previous career low of 18th (2006, '16).
Newman also never drove to a top-5 finish last season — a first since his last year with Richard Childress Racing in 2018 — and he gained just two top-10 finishes.
But Newman wasn't alone. It was an abysmal performance for both cars in the Roush-Fenway Racing team. The struggles for both Newman and Chris Buescher (who finished 21st in the standings and nabbed just two top-5 finishes) tell the story of a team that was especially hurt when NASCAR streamlined race events by removing practice and qualifying for nearly every race after its return from the pandemic stoppage.
With a similar plan set at most races when NASCAR returns this season, the challenge for a turnaround at RFR is daunting. Competition improvements will have to be found via simulation and then proven in race conditions. A good bit of luck — and not a repeat of Newman's last February visit to Daytona — would be welcomed, too.
Vegas Betting Odds to win 2021 Cup Championship: 175/1 (per Sportsbook.ag)
(Top photo courtesy of ASP, Inc.)