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Ryan Newman, a ‘walking miracle,’ will be in field for NASCAR’s return at Darlington

“I feel like a complete walking miracle,” Newman, 42, said during a Zoom news conference call Thursday.

Newman’s next step comes Sunday — at nearly 200 miles an hour.

When NASCAR fires up its engines at Darlington Raceway for its first Cup Series event since it halted competition in early March because of the novel coronavirus pandemic, Newman will be behind the wheel of the No. 6 Ford Mustang.

His return to racing — after his front-running Mustang was knocked into Daytona’s concrete wall, flipped upside down, got hit again and caught fire — coincides with NASCAR’s return.

The stakes are considerable for Newman and NASCAR, which is banking on the conviction that by adhering to guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and medical experts, stock-car racing can lead the way to a safe, albeit modified, return of American pro sports.

No fans will be permitted at the South Carolina track for the 400.2-mile race.

Newman said that while he understands the precaution and regrets the absence of fans, the drivers won’t be affected.

“When you’re running 200 miles per hour, you can’t look in the stands anyway . . . until you’re doing burnouts or doughnuts in Victory Lane,” he said with a smile.

Among NASCAR’s other safety precautions: Race teams will be limited to 16 people; masks and social distancing in the garage and pits are mandatory; and the race “weekend” will be telescoped into one day, with no practice sessions or qualifying. The latter poses the biggest competitive challenge because practice laps help teams fine-tune their cars before unleashing them to run nose-to-tail and three wide at 200 mph.

Heightening the stakes is the fact that NASCAR’s return comes on one of its trickier tracks, 1.366-mile Darlington, which stands as an egg-shaped anachronism in a sport that has sought desperately to modernize its venues. Built in 1950, Darlington has no identical corners, making it impossible to settle into a rhythm. The fastest lap around requires running centimeters from the wall, hence its nickname “The Track Too Tough to Tame.”

For Newman, making his return at Darlington represents a silver lining in two regards.

It’s his favorite track, expressly because of the challenge it poses.

And though NASCAR drivers haven’t strapped into a car since March 8, Newman has — at Darlington.

Just a two-hour drive from most NASCAR teams’ headquarters in Charlotte, Darlington Raceway was the site of the final step in Newman’s medical clearance to return to racing. It boiled down to whether he could handle the speed and pressure of 20 fast laps at Darlington, with NASCAR officials and a neurologist looking on.

He felt no apprehension climbing in his racecar for the late April test, he said. His problem was the opposite.

“I was so excited and ready to go and just kind of prove myself that I actually had to slow myself down,” Newman recalled.

He left no doubt, posting speeds on his first five laps that were faster than last fall’s pole-winning speed.

The 2008 Daytona 500 winner, Newman said he hasn’t watched the entire 500 from three months ago, yet the frustration of knowing he was leading the last lap, with a second victory in stock-car racing’s greatest event in his grasp, is tough to take, even though he remembers little of that day.

He has looked at footage of his crash, but it triggered no memory.

“As I watched the crash and had to make myself believe what I had went through, I really looked to my dad to say, ‘Hey, did this really happen?’ ” he recalled.

Newman said he can’t fill in the blanks of the sequence that follows. He knows he was knocked unconscious. He has since learned that he resisted track workers’ efforts to extricate him from the wreckage and that his carbon-fiber helmet sustained damage, so either a section of his car or someone else’s made contact with it.

As for his diagnosis, Newman explained that doctors gave him conflicting information about whether he suffered a concussion. So Newman offers his own diagnosis, saying simply that he suffered a “brain bruise” and needed a bit of time for his brain to rest.

He stayed busy the past two months — teaching home-school for his second- and third-grade daughters, restoring his latest classic car and looking after the cows and three buffalo calves on his farm.

A man with varied interests, he won’t lack for something to do once he retires from racing. But that time isn’t now.

“I’ve been a race fan all my life,” said Newman, an Indiana native who started racing quarter midgets when he was 4. “I have a goal in my life to be a Cup champion, and I feel like I’m with a team and have the opportunity to do that.”

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