Sports

Why Is Dale Earnhardt Jr. Defending the Daytona 500 Winner?

No one currently active in NASCAR is more closely associated with tragedy than Dale Earnhardt Jr., so the auto racing community listened when the retired driver came to the defense of Daytona 500 champion Denny Hamlin in the aftermath of a serious crash involving Ryan Newman.

Scary conclusion to the 2020 Daytona 500

There was chaos near the end of the 62nd running of the Daytona 500 as Ryan Newman was involved in a fiery crash while Denny Hamlin was racing toward the checkered flag in the best-known race on the NASCAR circuit.

Hamlin, who edged Ryan Blaney at the finish line, couldn’t have known the extent of the crash that flipped Newman’s car upside down, seriously endangering the driver. As a rescue crew extinguished flames and worked to extract Newman from the wreck, Hamlin went about the traditional winners’ celebration of doing burnouts on the infield grass.

Once he became aware that Newman was seriously injured and being transported to a hospital, Hamlin apologized immediately. Joe Gibbs Racing, which owns Hamlin’s team, also issued an apology, but criticism continued.

Many lashing out at Hamlin on social media had the advantage of seeing the developments with Newman on live TV while the driver’s two-way radio had been cut off, leaving him unaware.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. comes to the defense of Denny Hamlin

Retired NASCAR driver Dale Earnhardt Jr., consistently voted one of the sport’s most popular figures, spoke up in defense of Hamlin. His vast background in racing, including two victories in the Daytona 500, qualifies him as an expert in everything that takes place on the track, including scary wrecks.

“I’ve seen a lot of bad things in racing, and I’ve seen more than one death at a race track,” said Earnhardt, now a network TV analyst. “I’ve been at race tracks where people have lost their lives and multiple times. So I feel like Denny, he won the race. He obviously did not see the severity of the crash in the mirror. He did not understand — how could he know that Corey LaJoie made contact with Newman’s car the way it did?”

As awful as the wreck looked it did not result in tragedy. Though he was initially listed in serious condition, Newman walked out of Halifax Health Medical Center under his own power two days later.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. has a connection to tragedy at Daytona

Dale Earnhardt Jr. understands what Denny Hamlin and his pit crew were experiencing in the moments immediately after winning the Daytona 500 for the second year in a row.

On Feb. 18, 2001, Michael Waltrip took the checkered flag at Daytona for the most significant victory of his career and drove onto victory lane to join in his team’s celebration. He had no idea that a wreck behind him on the final lap involving Dale Earnhardt Sr., the owner of the Waltrip racing team, was far more serious than it initially appeared.

“He feels like (it) was the most incredible moment of his life and waiting on dad to walk right into that victory lane at any moment to celebrate with him,” Earnhardt Jr. recalled.

That never happened. The elder Earnhardt sustained fatal injuries in the crash resulting from getting tangled with cars driven by Sterling Marlin and Ken Schrader, a development not announced until well after the awards ceremony.

There have been eight fatal incidents since, none involving the top NASCAR circuit.