By most accounts, the 50th running of the Daytona 500 lived up to its hype. The annual Florida speed extravaganza provided spectators with an above-average dose of exciting side-by-side racing, and it culminated in an almost-Cinderella like ending with a completely unexpected win by Ryan Newman.
To say Newman’s win was an upset – despite being aligned with powerful Penske Racing – would be an understatement. Plenty of big names were being bandied around as real threats to win the event, with fan favorite Dale Earnhardt Jr. becoming the odds-on favorite based not on his popularity, but on his wins in both the Bud Shootout and the first Gatorade Duel qualifying race. Should Junior falter, many speculated that his teammates, Jeff Gordon or Jimmie Johnson, would also have a shot of pulling out the win. Based on preseason hype and pre-race success, it seemed just a matter of time until the heretofore dominating Hendrick Motorsports stable of drivers would be lined up on the last lap as they raced to the checkered flag at Daytona.
There were also widespread predictions of a much-improved Toyota Camry visiting victory lane, as they flexed their newfound muscle in qualifying, the Bud Shootout and the Gatorade Duels leading up to the “Big Show.” Joe Gibbs Racing, making their Toyota debut, demonstrated that they were in Florida to contend for the win – as they had in years past. Strong showings from JGR driver Tony Stewart, who finished second in the Bud Shootout, and teammate Denny Hamlin, the winner of Gatorade Duel No. 2 with Stewart in tow, indicated that they would be a force to be reckoned with. And then there was the new driver in the JGR stable, 22-year-old Kyle Busch, who had impressed observers with his driving and speed all week. Additionally, three other Toyotas – two-time 500 winner Michael Waltrip, David Reutimann and Dave Blaney – posted top-five qualifying times, garnering attention as possible “upset” candidates to win.
But through all the talk of favorites, I do not recall hearing any serious prediction of a Dodge victory – and certainly, none that pegged the Penske Racing, No. 12 Alltel Dodge of Newman to take home the Harley J. Earl trophy. It seems to me that the 30-year-old South Bend, Ind. native had fallen off of the experts’ radar screen, becoming relegated to “probable also ran” status after several years of recent struggle. So, Newman’s surprise win leaves one to wonder, “What do us ‘experts’ know, anyways?”
It certainly isn’t that anyone doubted the 2002 Raybestos Rookie of the Year possessed the talent to win; Newman had 12 career Cup victories in six full Sprint Cup seasons leading up to this year’s Daytona classic. But considering that his last win came in September of 2005, it is easy to understand that those memories may have faded away for some. And you can’t ignore that in the last couple of seasons, it appeared the driver dubbed “Rocket Man” for his prolific ability to qualify on the pole – having done so on 42 occasions during his short career – had slipped from legitimate NASCAR star to a perpetual non-contender for victories.
That the stocky Purdue University graduate was not on anybody’s short list of potential 500 winners is evidence of just how poorly Newman and his No. 12 team had performed since 2005, when he finished sixth in Sprint Cup points and qualified for the Chase for the Championship for the second time in its first two years of existence. But in 2006, it seems as if the wheels began to come off what had been a meteoric rise that saw Newman – after just four seasons of competition – already regarded as one of NASCAR’s elite drivers. The year ended with no wins for the first time in his career and a dismal 18th-place finish in the Sprint Cup driver standings. And then, in 2007, he went winless once again, equipped with nine DNFs that left him unable to qualify for the Chase a second time. Newman’s career had inarguably taken a nosedive – with no timetable for when the airplane was plotting to right itself.
Where the blame should be placed for Flyin’ Ryan’s decline in performance the last couple of years is debatable. Certainly, some would point to the 2006 split between him and longtime crew chief Matt Borland, who had been there through Newman’s early NASCAR successes. It had been said that the two – both with engineering degrees – were able to communicate at a higher technical level than any other driver/crew chief combination ever had. But at the time of Borland’s departure to Michael Waltrip Racing, there had already been a marked dropoff in the team’s performance; failures were mounting, and Penske needed to do something to rock the boat at the time.
But to me, Newman’s inability to win and consistently finish in the top 10 has been more a product of the Dodge-branded teams’ inability to keep up engineering-wise with the dominating Ford or Chevrolet teams than through any fault of his own. That Dodge cars were able take six of the eight top-finishing positions this year is almost inexplicable, except that strange things can and will happen in the draft at Daytona.
It is doubtful that the Dodge domination Sunday is indicative of how well they will compete against the other manufacturers as the race season progresses. As for how many more wins Newman will record in 2008, if any? That, too, is difficult to predict. But on Sunday, one thing was for certain; Newman, aided by a big push from teammate Kurt Busch, won the Daytona 500. In doing, so he provided many people with both a stunning and thrilling finish to the Great American Race; and for that, I thank him.
So, congratulations to Ryan Newman and the entire crew of the No. 12 Penske Racing Dodge!
And that’s my view, from Turn 5.