On Feb. 16 and 17, 2020, NASCAR’s 62nd annual Daytona 500 was held. Considered a crown jewel of the NASCAR circuit, this race is one of the most anticipated year in and year out.
The 2020 Daytona 500 began on Feb. 16, with Ricky Stenhouse Jr. leading the pack as the green flag waved. Unfortunately for the 40 race entrants and millions watching at home, the race was suspended due to rain showers after a mere 20 laps out of 200.
The race resumed the following day at 4 p.m. and few issues arose until lap 185, when the perennial “Big One” struck at Daytona International Speedway.
For those who are unfamiliar with NASCAR, The Big One is a term commonly used by fans and racers to describe the inevitable multi-car wreck that happens late in a superspeedway event. At superspeedways like Daytona, cars are often racing bumper-to-bumper at 200 mph.
The odds of a crash increase exponentially at the end of superspeedway events, which usually have very high stakes attached. Drivers often push the limits in order to gain a slight edge, and even one misplaced bump can send dozens of cars spinning, crashing into walls and even flipping over.
At this particular Daytona 500, The Big One resulted in an over 20–car collision on the backstretch of the track, resulting in a red flag. Seven-time NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson and both Kurt and Kyle Busch suffered damages to their car that ended their night.
As is customary at events like the Daytona 500, late–race excitement culminated into plenty of wrecks in the waning moments of the race. Late caution flags forced a double overtime finish, leading to the longest Daytona 500 in history at 209 laps.
After the green flag waved for the final overtime, three drivers separated themselves from the field on the penultimate lap of the event. Up-and-comer Ryan Blaney, underdog veteran Ryan Newman and two-time Daytona 500 champion Denny Hamlin.
Hamlin jumped out to the lead on the final lap before Blaney gave Newman a boost into first place. The cutdown on wind resistance enabled Blaney to move into second, putting Hamlin in third place.
Hamlin then pushed Blaney in an attempt to execute the same maneuver used against him. Blaney tried to disengage from the push in an attempt to swing around Newman, but caught his rear bumper during the move. This sent Newman spinning out. The car flipped over itself repeatedly and was hit by other cars in the field before coming to a rest in flames.
Meanwhile, Hamlin had used the contact between Blaney and Newman to pull even with Blaney and crossed the finish line 0.014 seconds before his opponent to take home his third Daytona 500 trophy. It was the second–closest finish in the history of the event, bested only by Hamlin’s first Daytona 500 win in 2016 over Martin Truex Jr.
Following the race, Newman was rushed to a local hospital. Two hours later, it was reported that his injuries were serious, but not life-threatening. He made a full recovery and returned to NASCAR on May 17.
This stood as a landmark moment in racing history, as many in the NASCAR community credited advancements in safety technology for saving Newman’s life. Safety in NASCAR has been a focal point since the death of the legendary Dale Earnhardt Sr. at the 2001 Daytona 500, 19 years earlier.