2008 Ride: No. 12 Penske Racing Dodge
2008 Primary Sponsors: Alltel, Kodak, Samsung HDTV, Avis
2008 Owner: Roger Penske
2008 Crew Chief: Roy McCauley
Stats: 36 races, 1 win, 2 top fives, 8 top 10s, 1 pole, 17th in points.
Best Finish: First – Daytona 500.
High Point: The No. 12 team rode the momentum of a strong close to the 2007 season right into Daytona Speedweeks. Racing with former Busch Series crew chief Roy McCauley for the first time at the Cup level, Ryan Newman and his No. 12 team had a stellar run in the Gatorade Duels, earning the seventh starting spot for the Daytona 500. That Sunday, Newman and crew ran up front all race long, hooking up with Tony Stewart on a late-race restart that moved the No. 12 car into the second position. On the final lap, coming out of Turn 2, Newman lagged behind Stewart’s Toyota, allowing teammate Kurt Busch to give him “the push from heaven” that sent Newman’s No. 12 Dodge to Victory Lane for the first time since 2005. The win was Penske Racing’s first Daytona triumph, first restrictor plate victory, and first ever one-two finish.
Low Point: After coming within a lap of winning the series’ next plate race at Talladega before fading to eighth, the No. 12 team had a return to Daytona circled as the race to turn their season around. Coming into the event, Newman had scored only one top 10 finish in the last seven weeks, putting his Chase hopes on little more than life support. Unfortunately, Daytona didn’t offer the resuscitation needed the second time around. Early on, Newman was spun out by Jamie McMurray on lap 45, sending him to the back of the pack and fighting for survival. Keeping his cool, he successfully battled back into the top 10, running seventh by lap 125… only to have David Gilliland get loose and slam the No. 12 Dodge into the Turn 4 wall. The team fixed the car a second time, and within the next 10 laps, got Newman back into the top 15… only to have Martin Truex, Jr. spin Denny Hamlin’s Toyota right into the nose of his car. So, three incidents — none of which were Newman’s making — left him with a wrecked car and a 36th place finish at one of his team’s strongest tracks. And dropping 185 points behind 12th with eight races left in the regular season effectively ended this driver’s playoff chances.
Summary: In like a lion, out like a lamb was perhaps the best way to describe Newman’s season. In the first four weeks, Newman scored his first Cup victory since Loudon in September of 2005, then followed that up by posting three consecutive top 15s on intermediate ovals that had long been the No. 12 team’s Achilles’ heel. Unfortunately, a wreck at Bristol and a handling nightmare at Martinsville exposed very real shortcomings in the team’s once-vaunted short track program. As others managed to make gains on the CoT, Newman and Penske Racing had fallen behind, showing none of the competitiveness that they did in those same races in 2007.
The team’s struggles were accentuated in the summer with the announcement that Newman would be leaving Penske for Stewart-Haas Racing’s No. 39 car. Relegated to lame-duck status, Newman and the No. 12 cracked the top 10 only once in the season’s final 12 races, missing the Chase by a mile and settling for 17th in the final standings despite their Daytona victory. Penske Racing’s engine department woes also resurfaced in the fall, with Newman suffering DNFs at Loudon and Talladega due to motor failure.
2009 Outlook: When Newman arrives at Daytona for Speedweeks in 2009, it will be the first time in his NASCAR career that he is not driving for Penske Racing. And the change could not have come at a better time. Saddled with an affiliation with the ever-struggling Dodge Motorsports program, an unreliable engine department, and a seeming inability to solve its handling woes on longer ovals, Penske Racing does not look to be getting more competitive on the race track anytime soon.
Stewart-Haas Racing, on the other hand, is looking at nothing but an upswing for 2009. Hendrick engines and support will give Newman the most reliable race cars he’s had in his career. Plus, one can’t forget the millions that Chevrolet paid to bring Newman’s teammate, Stewart, back into the bowtie brigade. They didn’t drop all that cash to see SHR running midpack — so expect the resources will be there immediately for this new team.
But that’s not to say Newman fans should be expecting instant success for the Rocketman at SHR. Despite the benefits of having durable Hendrick horsepower and equipment underneath him, the fact does remain that Newman is driving for a renovated team with a new crew chief and teammate. Though they’ll likely be a force on plate tracks (a second consecutive Daytona 500 trophy is not out of the question), 2009 will likely be a year of battling for top 20 finishes and accumulating a good notebook for the renumbered No. 39 car. The Chase is likely out of the question this season, too; but if all goes well, 2010 should be all systems go for Newman to make a long overdue push for a Cup title.
2006 Frontstretch Grade: D.
2007 Grade: C.
2008 Grade: D.