NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Happy Hour: What is Ryan (or Roger) Thinking?

Most all of us at some point in our lives have been dissatisfied with where we are in life – in a job, where we live, with our cars. And if things aren’t perfect for us now, it’s natural to think things could be better elsewhere. Sometimes that leads us to make decisions we end up regretting. I can certainly attest to that with job choices I have made in the past. (I’m not talking about Frontstretch of course, I’m perfectly OK here.)

It’s also fair to suggest that Ryan Newman and the Penske No. 12 Alltel Dodge aren’t where they could or should be. After narrowly defeating Jimmie Johnson for the Rookie of the Year in 2002 and an amazing eight wins in 2003, the No. 12 team has been unable to sustain that level of performance. After 11 wins in 2002-04, Newman has visited victory lane just four times in 2005-2008. Newman had 42 top fives in his first three seasons; he has had only 19 in the three and a half years since.

Ryan has also failed to make the Chase in the last three campaigns, with only an outside shot to make it this time around. Since almost everyone makes the playoffs in NASCAR these days, that certainly is a valid reason for disenchantment with one’s team.

It isn’t surprising that a driver of Newman’s caliber who achieved so much early in his career would grow frustrated with running 15th more often than fifth. Newman stated earlier this year that if the performance at Penske Racing did not improve drastically, he was moving on.

It didn’t. He is. And so here we are. But where do both of them go now?

Newman has decided to take the plunge and get out at Penske. But unless he takes over the recently vacated No. 20 ride at Joe Gibbs, which is highly improbable given the need to clear a space for Joey Logano, he isn’t likely to end up in a ride that has more of a future than the No. 12. He could end up in the No. 33 for Richard Childress, but Childress hasn’t been running much better than Penske these days. Jeff Burton is where he is by not DNFing very often. He has just a few more top 10s this season (10) than Newman does (six). Both drivers have an equal amount of wins. And for the moment at least, Casey Mears seems to be the candidate for the new Childress car anyway.

KEITH: NEWMAN AND PENSKE TO PART WAYS. NOW WHAT?

Those two unlikely rides are the best of Newman’s prospects, and only one looks much rosier than the No. 12. Remaining opportunities are even bleaker. Short of the No. 20 and No. 33, the best possibly available ride next year is the No. 1 at DEI. That team hasn’t been setting the world on fire this year, and DEI’s search for funding of late has to foretell difficult times for Teresa and Company.

It seems even less likely that Newman has his eyes set on Dave Blaney’s job in the No. 22. Equally unappealing is the prospect of possibly taking over Reed Sorenson’s No. 41 at Ganassi. I doubt he is that loyal to Dodge.

So we’re left with what the big rumor is.

That Tony Stewart had announced his impending departure from Joe Gibbs Racing just one week before Newman announced his leaving Penske naturally arouses suspicion that Stewart-Haas is where Newman is likely headed. This is surprising initially when one thinks about how Stewart and Newman have tangled in the past, but in truth, that would be the case no matter who Tony wants on the team. (Joke.) Stewart knows a good driver when he races against one, and Newman is better than his runs are currently showing.

There sure seems to be a lot of buzz going on with Stewart-Haas, especially for a team that currently has one car just barely in the Top 35 and another team that has a revolving door for a driver’s seat and isn’t anywhere close to being guaranteed to race every week. Haas looks more like a team on the verge of bankruptcy than on NASCAR prominence. Why people assume Stewart will turn it around quickly is a difficult question to answer. Greatness in the arena does not automatically translate into greatness in the executive position, as Michael Jordan demonstrated.

That Stewart-Haas will be leasing engines from Hendrick Motorsports doesn’t assure that they will run well – Haas is already running Hendrick engines now. More likely it suggests that they will never be as good as Hendrick. Shouldn’t the notion that a team is leasing its engines elsewhere betray a general problem with the company, instead of as the advantage that it is currently hailed as being? If a team can’t build its own competitive engines, how are they going to outrun the teams that can?

There is one good argument for Newman being the other driver choice for Stewart-Haas. The team needs to get into the Top 35. Stewart will be able to keep one car in races with his past champion’s provisionals, and Rocket Man is well known for his unmatched qualifying skills, having an astonishing 43 poles in 242 starts, which could conceivably help keep the other car in the Top 35 and on the track every week. But Newman’s qualifying feats were in a Penske machine… and his signature qualifying performances have also dropped off with his finishes of late.

Having Stewart and Newman will draw in big-name sponsors. Office Depot, Burger King and Old Spice are already on board. And Chevrolet is rumored to be pouring more resources into the Stewart-Haas program, although I haven’t seen any concrete evidence of that, especially in light of GM’s recently stated desire to cut back on its motorsports expenditures.

Even if Chevy is kicking in some extra resources, big money sponsorship and manufacturer backing don’t automatically translate into results on the track. If Stewart-Haas doesn’t improve significantly and rapidly from the performance they’re accustomed to – and they would surely have to do better than occasionally cracking the Top 35 to keep the bigger sponsors around – Newman may be wishing he stuck around at Penske someday.

Newman isn’t the only one whose thinking is suspect in the split. Given the options Penske has now, they might have made more of an effort to keep the Rocket Man around.

Alltel is going to have to depart soon, so Roger is going to need a driver who can attract a sponsor. Currently Mears and Martin Truex Jr. are his best bets, and both of them have the credentials for taking over the No. 12, but neither of them have the on-track resume that Newman has. Truex came in third in Rookie of the Year voting in 2006 behind Denny Hamlin and Clint Bowyer, and has just one win to his credit in 99 starts with DEI. Mears has been even less impressive, also with just one win while driving for one of the premier teams in the sport. It isn’t likely that either driver will equal even Newman’s less than ideal performance this season.

Short of those two, Sorenson is likely to be looking for a ride, but he’s going to need a better second half than two top 10s to replace Newman. David Reutimann is a talented driver who might be worthy, but if Michael Waltrip knows well enough, he is going to re-sign Reutimann soon. David Stremme? Stremme had three top 10s in 75 Cup races in the No. 40 for Chip Ganassi. That certainly makes him a questionable replacement for an established veteran with 13 wins.

So truthfully, Penske’s best choice is Truex, and while Truex is a capable pilot, he also has enough clout to get into a better ride. Penske and DEI are performing at about the same level right now, so Truex might seek out Richard Childress for a team whose future is brighter than DEI’s or Penske’s seems to be. And who knows… with prospects of more funding or even a new owner at DEI, Truex might have some incentive to stay where he is.

So Penske’s options aren’t great either.

It’s hard to imagine that Ryan Newman and Roger Penske, just five months after winning a Daytona 500 together, can look at their options and decide that they can do better than where they are now. Both driver and team may be capable of better than what they are giving each other, but both appear to be mistaken looking elsewhere, at least for the time being.

Kurt’s Shorts

  • Gateway as a track has more character than many on the current Cup circuit, and the racing there is usually terrific. The only problem is that you have to go to St. Louis. The town has a nice ballpark and great baseball history and the Arch is kind of cool, but when your next major attraction is the Bowling Hall of Fame…
  • The rumors are abounding that DEI is for sale again. I don’t hold Teresa in the low regard that many fans do, but I wish she’d make up her mind, because I’m sitting on a column about it and I need a week off.
  • At the beginning of this year, my then-girlfriend (now my wife) became really irritated that she again had to change her favorite driver, because she roots for the M&M’s car. She doesn’t follow racing enough to stay on top of that. I of course assured her that she would be glad that M&M’s was moving over to Kyle Busch. So now, when I wake her up after a night race to tell her that her driver won, she only gets a little upset with me.
  • If you think NASCAR is bad with the late starts, you should have watched the All-Star Game. A 15-inning game wouldn’t have been bad if they started the game before midnight. Guess I shouldn’t complain about night races. At least I don’t usually have to go to work the next day.

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