*Did You Notice?…* Ryan Newman’s wacky pattern of “upset” victories? In the last seven years, he has won only four times, with three of those the result of passes caused by circumstance, by luck tilting his way within the last five laps of a race. Consider…
*Daytona, February 2008.* Heading into the final restart, with three laps left Newman was fourth and a clear underdog with Joe Gibbs Racing teammates Tony Stewart and Kyle Busch up ahead. Those two had combined to lead 102 of 200 laps, but a move as the cars came up to speed “left them separated.”:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LcbNUA7x8P8 As Busch went low, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. went with him which allowed the teammates of Newman and Kurt Busch, not the JGR duo, to pair up. That left Stewart a sitting duck, with Busch “playing the good teammate” in his less moody years, giving Newman a clear path to victory. In total, he only led eight circuits, taking the lead for good only on the backstretch of the final lap.
*Phoenix, April 2010.* With the laps winding down, Newman was running a solid sixth yet with no shot at the victory. But a late-race crash, courtesy Scott Riggs’ No. 90, brought the caution out and a green-white-checkered finish where the leaders pitted for four fresh tires. Newman took only two, a move that propelled him to the front row and left him easing into the lead on the final restart. Holding off Jeff Gordon, the No. 39 car grabbed a surprising victory, Newman’s first for Stewart-Haas Racing in a race where he led just 12 laps.
*Martinsville, April 2012.* Once again, Newman was in position for a solid finish, near the back end of the top 5 before David Reutimann’s car stopped on the racetrack. Then, on the ensuing restart, Newman needed to avoid damage when it was his bump (claimed by some) that started the three-wide, divebomb-turned-disastrous-carnage that happened in front of the No. 39. When all was said and done, the Outback Steakhouse Chevy popped up in Victory Lane after leading just 12 laps.
Sense a pattern? That’s three of the four wins right there, where Newman led a total of 32 circuits and was going to finish fourth to sixth until luck intervened in the closing stages. Only at New Hampshire in the summer of 2011, where Newman led 119 of 300 laps, could we say “Rocket Man” fired up a dominant victory.
Why do I bring this up? Because every time Newman does pull one of these off, I’m reminded how he was once _expected_ to win. Falling into these scenarios is a surprising path for a guy who was once labeled the next superstar of the sport, outdueling Jimmie Johnson for the rookie title in 2002 before winning eight times the following year. In fact, through the two driver’s’ first four seasons, their numbers were more comparable than you might think:
*Stats Through The 2005 Season*
*Top 5s:* 50
*Top 10s:* 74
*Points Position:* 6th, 6th, 7th, 6th
*Top 5s:* 53
*Top 10s:* 86
*Points Position:* 5th, 2nd, 2nd, 5th
So what happened? While the Johnson/Knaus combo has remained intact, by the end of 2006 Newman lost his partner in crime, crew chief Matt Borland, and things have never been the same. Sure, Borland works with him now over at Stewart-Haas Racing, as the Vice President of Competition but it’s not the same; he’s not on the pit box or involved with day-to-day changes inside the No. 39. The most recent relationship for Newman, with Tony Gibson at SHR, has been just good enough to keep intact but not quite great enough to ever be called true championship-contending material.
It’s a strange deal, that this driver is satisfied with the 8th-12th range in points considering the raw talent has been proven: Newman’s sixteen victories have come at 11 different tracks. Consider that in 2003, he led a grand total of 1,173 circuits, a career high in that eight-win season. But in the last _seven years,_ since his dropoff began in 2006 he’s _totaled_ 1,174. And people say Dale Earnhardt, Jr. has underachieved; in much the same way, people who saw Newman at his peak would have a hard time believing that, eight years later, he’s the “B” option in an organization that’s also considered a “B” satellite of Hendrick Motorsports. It’s a head-scratcher.
*Did You Notice?* … The quality of drivers who have not led a lap so far in 2012? Perhaps the most surprising is *Kasey Kahne,* if only because he’s won the pole twice this season for Hendrick Motorsports. How can you charge in front at the drop of the green, heading into Turn 1, _twice_ and still not be credited with a single lap led? You have to wonder if the pressure will get to Kahne going forward, especially considering everyone else at Hendrick Motorsports has at least been _in contention_ to win one race this season while Stewart-Haas Racing has won three.
But he’s not alone. The retooling at Earnhardt Ganassi Racing, while showing well early has tailed off; *Juan Pablo Montoya* hasn’t led a lap while *Jamie McMurray* has paced the field for only one. For an organization where funding isn’t an issue – sponsorship is solid across the board, and the team has remained at two cars for several years now – you’ve got to wonder whether crew chiefs will wind up on the “hot seat” early. “Bono” Manion and McMurray were one of the few combos outside the top 20 in points last season who returned intact; meanwhile, Chris Heroy is six races into his first job atop the pit box with Montoya. At least you can say with the No. 1 car that they’ve been competitive, with two top-10 finishes negated by some nasty DNFs. But Montoya has only one top 10, by comparison, and has looked, well, lifeless other than that “explosive” incident at Daytona. An engineering mind can’t always mesh with a moody driver…
And then we have the case of *Carl Edwards.* Now winless for the last 39 Cup races, he hasn’t led a lap since Homestead in the season finale. What concerns me during this time of trouble for the No. 99 is in the past, Edwards could count on building confidence through the strength of his Nationwide performances. But now? Sunday is the one and only time he’ll be racing NASCAR in 2012. While it’s nice to have the extra time off, providing Edwards with more time to spend with his growing family he’s stuck thinking about 11th instead of getting to kiss at least one trophy. A driver’s confidence can be a shaky thing, and with the rest of the Roush Fenway camp running so well, this so-so start without a safety net will definitely be a test of Edwards’ maturity and character. Don’t be surprised, if he keeps struggling, if Jack Roush finds a way to throw him in for a spot Nationwide start or two when we hit the intermediate tracks once again.
As for the mid-level guys on this list? They include *Marcos Ambrose,* expected to be a Chase contender for Richard Petty Motorsports but whose organization appears to have been hurt by AJ Allmendinger’s last-minute departure; *Bobby Labonte,* open and honest about JTG Daugherty’s learning curve after moving into their own shop as a single-car program; and *Casey Mears,* whose single-car No. 13 program took a step forward in 2011 but has yet to record a top-20 result this season. At some point, you’ve got to think GEICO, even though they’re only paying for 24 races will get tired of running at or near the back?
For that trio, the off week gives them much-needed time to catch up and refocus for the races ahead. But if there’s a guy to worry about the most on this list, it’s Kahne. You can only go through so many poor performances before it gets to you, and there’s already been a spotter change with cousin Kole removed from his longtime post. At 31st in points, Kahne has to get aggressive, running the ragged edge for victories that will push him back into top-20 points contention (the only way I can see him making the Chase) and sometimes, the harder you try, the worse it gets. It just took this Kahne/Francis duo so long to learn the Red Bull package, without any pressure, and neither one is exactly a “spotlight” type of guy. It’s a precarious spot to be in…
*Did You Notice?* … Quick hits before we take off…
– Kudos for Rick Ware Racing and Timmy Hill for figuring out the best place for the rookie is in Nationwide. Hill failed to qualify for three races, with a Las Vegas wreck sandwiched in between and clearly looked not ready for the heavy hitters on the Cup level. With relatively adequate funding for Nationwide, this 19-year-old can get back to learning and growing within a series tilting back towards its full-time drivers. Why waste the one chance this kid may get when all you’re going to get is a bunch of mangled sheet metal?
The downside to this pullback, of course, is that our Cup rookie class now consists of start-and-parker Josh Wise and… um… can’t Danica just declare already?
– Speaking of Danica, the biggest laugher out there this week is concerns about “buying a ride” or whether she’ll be capable of qualifying at Darlington on speed. With the No. 37 pulling out, we’re down to roughly 44-45 full-time regulars who would be scheduled to attempt the Southern 500 in May. Remember, it may be one of the sport’s most historic races but it also has one of its smallest purses. So to qualify, she’s got to beat one, maybe two start-and-parkers with lesser equipment and who may gladly “withdraw” if there’s even a hint she’s last out of 44 cars. A Danica DNQ just isn’t going to happen, people, nor will the embarrassment of buying a ride. At worst, she’ll be 43rd when the entry list is “magically” reduced to 43 cars.
– Isn’t it strange that _none_ of NASCAR’s top series are racing on Easter weekend? Sure, a holiday is a great time to break but in past years, they’ve at least kept the Nationwide Series going on a Saturday. In another case of bad luck (or bad scheduling), Martinsville will be old news in the national sports world with the Masters, Baseball’s Opening Week and both NCAA Championships over before Texas comes our way next Saturday night.