One of the hottest rumors in the garage became fact on Monday afternoon, with the announcement by Penske Racing that Ryan Newman will no longer drive for the team after the 2008 season. The dissolution of the Newman/Penske relationship marks the end of a nine-year run between the two, one that produced 21 wins in NASCAR’s top divisions – including the 2002 All-Star Race and the 2008 Daytona 500. Newman, who was brought up from the USAC ranks to stock cars in the team’s ABC development program, has driven for Roger Penske since 2000 and full-time in the No. 12 Cup car since 2002.
After qualifying for the Chase in 2004 and 2005, however, things have gone from feast to famine for Newman in the Cup Series. Following a near-miss in the 2006 Daytona 500 – finishing third – the driver of the Alltel Dodge struggled through the worst season of his career. His No. 12 team was unable to put out a competitive car on the circuit’s many intermediate tracks, and by the end of the year, longtime crew chief Matt Borland was sent packing. Newman finished 18th in points that season with only seven top-10 finishes to his credit, missing the Chase for the first time in its three-year existence.
The playoff drought continued the following year, with a total of nine DNFs the culprit in keeping Newman from entering the vaunted top 12 – despite markedly improved performance. And while he captured the season-opening Daytona 500 this February to snap a two-and-a-half year winless streak, the 2008 season has definitely been a step back for the No. 12 team. While they have been exceptional in restrictor-plate races, they have still proven unable to produce race-winning cars on intermediate tracks and have also struggled with their once formidable short-track package. Penske’s engines have also proved unreliable, as seven engine failures since the start of 2007 have left Newman sitting in the garage more than a little too often. But perhaps most notably of all, the No. 12 team has been unable to give Newman a car capable of qualifying well; the man once dubbed the “Rocketman” for his Friday exploits has just one pole halfway through the 2008 season – his lowest output since 2001.
This decision looks to be a good move for the veteran, now in his seventh full-time season driving in the Cup Series. While Newman has acknowledged that the potential is there to win a Sprint Cup championship at Penske Racing, he is correct in saying earlier this season that “the potential hasn’t proven to be as high as other organizations.” Saddled with a struggling Dodge Motorsports affiliation and being second on the totem pole to the organization’s IRL program, Penske’s stock car operation has fallen behind both NASCAR’s superteams and the CoT. Much like Chip Ganassi Racing, Penske has not found the balance between being an IndyCar giant and a title-worthy Sprint Cup entity. And with Roger Penske’s health problems and the relative struggles of the team’s IRL drivers, one can’t help but question how much focus the Cup effort at Penske Racing is going to get in the near future.
But one thing is for certain here: Newman’s career achievements indicate a far better driver than his car is allowing him to show right now. The results over the last few years have perhaps not matched the attention Newman has gotten as a free agent, but it’s important to note that his teammate, Kurt Busch – a proven winner and Sprint Cup champion – has struggled in much the same way Newman has at Penske since 2006. There is just too much talent behind the wheel within that organization for the drivers to be the reason behind their shortcomings.
So, as the No. 12 team begins to move forward, the question has become who the best guy is to team with Busch and Sam Hornish Jr., and – perhaps most importantly – which ones can bring sponsorship to the table. Verizon has bought out Alltel and plans to phase out the label, likely leaving the No. 12 without a primary sponsor for 2009 and beyond. Martin Truex Jr. – widely speculated to be looking for a way out of DEI – is a leading candidate who may well bring his sponsor Bass Pro Shops with him wherever he goes. But the other obvious choice would be the team’s test driver, David Stremme, who has overachieved this season in the Nationwide Series with Rusty Wallace’s new team. Stremme doesn’t have the sponsor dollars behind him, but he does have familiarity with the organization and with team drivers Busch and Hornish, giving him a slight edge in the selection process.
As for Newman himself, he has made it clear in interviews that his departure is based on solely one factor: performance. With the Daytona 500 under his belt, the big item left on the Newman’s career list is a Cup title, and the question has become where the greatest potential for him to win one is. He reportedly has three offers on the table for 2009, and has been linked to established teams – including Joe Gibbs Racing’s No. 20 and Richard Childress Racing’s new No. 33. However, Newman has been most closely linked to the second seat at Stewart-Haas Racing, and it is this move that will likely be announced in the next few weeks. And – once you study all the options – it is the one that makes the most sense for Newman.
Newman and Tony Stewart both cut their teeth on the dirt tracks of Indiana. Both native Hoosiers, there’s no question they’re absolutely vicious competitors on the track. But while they’ve had their spats, away from the races there is a seemingly unspoken respect present between the two, who have fished together and built a reasonable friendship over time. They’re both among the best at what they do… and both have unfinished business. Stewart, a Cup champion, wants a Daytona 500 trophy and a stake in the future of the sport. Newman, at 30, is entering the prime of his career and wants a Sprint Cup.
It is this type of talent, drive, and surprising compatibility that can and will make Stewart-Haas Racing a successful and competitive team if they pair up together. As a Hendrick Motorsports satellite team, the equipment will be in place; with Stewart on board, the full support of Chevrolet will be there; and with two marquee drivers on the roster, the sponsors will be there. Success might not be immediate, but the potential for Cup titles will soon follow.
Penske Racing and Ryan Newman have had a remarkable run together, but Newman has done all he can in the No. 12. For him to accomplish his goal of being a Sprint Cup champion, a change had to be made. And whether it’s at Stewart-Haas or elsewhere, Newman has taken that essential first step towards a potential Cup title.