NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Dialing It In: The Curious Case of Ryan Newman

From 2002 to 2005, Ryan Newman was one of the most dominant figures on the Cup Series circuit. In that span of four years, he scored 12 wins, had 34 poles and finished sixth in the season-ending standings three times driving for Penske Racing. His worst year, he “slumped” to seventh.

After dry spells in 2006 and 2007, Newman opened the 2008 season with a bang, winning the 50th running of the Daytona 500 thanks to a push from then-teammate Kurt Busch. Things were beginning to look up again for the Indiana native as he came off the biggest win of his career.

Since then, however, Newman’s slump has only gotten worse. Following the dramatic last-lap win in Daytona, he failed to visit victory lane again until earlier this year in Phoenix, a stretch of 77 races. In fact, since his last win in 2005, Newman has recorded only two victories in 160 starts.

The lack of wins was not the only issue facing Newman, either. Once a regular figure in the top 10 in points, he finished outside the top 12 in the series standings three years in a row from 2006-2008 and, barring a miracle, will once again miss the Chase this season.

Joining the newly formed Stewart-Haas Racing operation in 2009, Newman was hopeful his fortunes would turn around with Hendrick power under the hood and the chance to prove himself with a new team.

“I told Tony, ‘The bottom line is, I’m here to have fun. I want to have fun with you.’ I know he wants to have fun doing this,” Newman said in 2008 when announcing he would join the organization. “That’s what racing hasn’t been a whole lot of for me lately due to the fact we had success in ’02, ’03, part of ’04, and since then it hasn’t been as successful. Therefore, some of the fun is gone with that. I look forward to having fun again.”

Unfortunately for Newman, frustration and disappointment seemed to follow him to his new team, starting before they even took the green flag in Daytona. In his debut weekend in the No. 39 U.S. Army Chevrolet, Newman blew a tire in practice and tore up his primary car, the team battled engine issues, and he wrecked his backup car during the Gatorade Duels. That triggered a month-long disaster where the team never finished higher than 22nd in its first four starts together.

Things recovered slightly as the year went on for Newman: after getting hot in early summer, he hung on to make the Chase, finishing the year ninth in standings with no wins. It was a valiant effort for a program that had struggled with a myriad of drivers before his arrival; but 2010 has seen a major regression, the No. 39 team struggling through several races with handling problems and sitting a disappointing 13th in the standings heading to Richmond.

With frustration mounting, Newman has begun to show a new attitude on the track. Always known for being one of the sport’s toughest drivers, over the last few months he has publicly criticized NASCAR, yours truly (when questioned during an August story about secret fines, he said, “It’s your job to write good things about our sport, otherwise we don’t want you”) and even fellow drivers. He has been involved in a number of on-track incidents as well as post-race confrontations.

In Michigan, Newman refused to let Joey Logano pass as they raced for position late in the going. Holding his line and making it difficult on the second-year driver, Logano bobbled and hit Newman, forcing him to spin.

Following the race, the two got in a heated discussion that ended with Newman shoving Logano. After being separated by NASCAR officials, Newman was overheard saying, “I’m good. I’m just trying to teach the little kid how to drive.”

Upset with how he was raced, Logano looked to get an explanation from Newman, but found someone hostile and unwilling to compromise.

“I was asking him why he races everybody so hard all the time. I’m not the only one who says that every week. Of everyone out there, he’s the hardest one to pass. I don’t understand why,” Logano said. “That’s kind of how this (racing) – I’ve found – that it works: If you give someone respect, you get that back. But he just races everyone hard. He raced his boss, Tony Stewart, hard. I don’t understand it, but he’s been doing it a lot longer than me. I tried to talk to him about it, but I don’t know. I didn’t get nowhere.”

This weekend in Atlanta, Newman had two similar incidents. During Saturday’s Nationwide Series race Newman battled with Trevor Bayne, who was a lap down. Frustrated he was unable to make his way past the lapped car, Newman came off turn 2 behind Bayne and, as the No. 99 began to wiggle, drove into the back of Bayne’s car, spinning him around.

The next day during the Sprint Cup race, Newman made a bold move up the middle of a three-wide situation late in the race. Coming off the corner with a full head of steam, he made contact with Kasey Kahne, turning him into Busch and ruining his night. Kahne – who led for 16 laps – would return to the track and run Newman into the wall to return the favor. After the race, Newman approached Kahne’s car in the garage area and stuck his head in the window to discuss the issue.

Both brushed off the post-race confrontation, but Newman’s aggressiveness both on and off the track have turned heads. Perhaps he is living up to the “Have at it, Boys” philosophy. Perhaps it is years of disappointment and poor luck, or perhaps it is just a case of Newman being an aggressive driver. Either way, Newman has shown over the last few months he is a racer not having fun racing – the same problem he had during the slump earlier in his career.

Realistically, Newman will miss out on the Chase once again this year. But despite wrapping up his 12th season in the Cup Series, he has not lost the ability or the passion to drive a racecar. It seems in order for Newman to succeed, he needs to be in good equipment – which he is – and needs to be having fun doing so – which he currently is not. It is never fun to struggle, and once those struggles snowball thanks to bad luck and other things that seem to be out of your control, a driver’s internal frustrations can only worsen. With his first child on the way, perhaps Newman should take this offseason to regroup, reevaluate his career, and get back to what matters most: enjoying himself at the track. Only then will success surely follow.

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