He’s the “Rocket Man,” right? That’s what they used to call him. There was a time where he seldom qualified outside of the top 10, and was known for earning the pole position. However, that time has passed, and now this Indiana-native is considered an underdog heading into the final race of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season.
Ryan Newman, who will turn 37 at the end of the season, is arguably in the best position of his career. Prior to this year, his best overall finish was sixth in 2002, 2003 and 2005. But when Stewart-Haas Racing parted ways with the 17-time Cup Series winner, he found a new home at Richard Childress Racing as Jeff Burton’s replacement.
Prior to Newman moving over to RCR, he had only three winless seasons. Yet even though he had plenty of confidence heading into the year with high expectations, Newman has a mere four top-5 finishes. Moreover, he’s averaging a finish of 13th-place, which ranks fifth in NASCAR’s top-tier division with one event left in the season. That consistency, combined with a few lucky breaks in the Chase, has enabled the No. 31 team to advance to the final round of NASCAR’s version of the playoffs.
“I think Denny kind of said that you could have a fast car, you could have a consistent car, you could have a good long-run car, and you’ve got pretty good chances of having a good day at Homestead,” said Newman following his 11th-place effort at Phoenix. “The fastest car may not win, the best car on a restart may not win. You just never know. It could come right down to fuel mileage and three of the four of us could be coasting on the last lap… I’m proud of all my guys, and today was a lot of hard work, and in the end, the last lap was fun. But everything before that was pretty stressful.”
But in order to get to the championship race, Newman had to make a few moves.
Had he not made a daring move entering turn 3 on the final lap at Phoenix on Sunday afternoon, Newman would have been tied with four-time champion Jeff Gordon. The driver of the No. 24 car had the edge in the tie-breaker since his best finish in the Eliminator Round was second (at Phoenix and Martinsville), compared to Newman’s third-place result at Martinsville. However, using lessons that he learned in sprint cars and modifieds, Newman drove it in the corner insanely hard, shoving Kyle Larson into the wall as the two roared onto the frontstretch for the final straight.
“I think if Kyle Larson was in my shoes, he’d have done the exact same thing,” explained Newman. “I didn’t take him out. He still finished the race albeit, but I think in a day or two he’ll understand, if he doesn’t now. It’s hard to rationalize that, but like I said, I did what I had to do and tried to keep it as clean as I possibly could. I don’t like racing that way, but there’s a lot on the line here, and we’ll keep digging.”
That level of aggressiveness has led Newman to where he is now. RCR has been behind all year. In fact, the team has 31 top 10s combined (Newman has 15), but with just nine top 5s, it has not shown speed to compete for wins. Newman has led just 41 laps this year, and although that isn’t the lowest he has been up front in his career, it seemingly isn’t enough to justify a title.
However, combined with team owner Richard Childress’ urge to win a championship for the first time since Dale Earnhardt’s seventh and final one in 1994, Newman’s renewed tenacious attitude might lead the organization triumph, though he’s definitely the underdog entering Homestead.
RCR is going up against Team Penske driver Joey Logano, Joe Gibbs Racing’s Denny Hamlin and Stewart-Haas Racing’s Kevin Harvick, who appears to be the championship favorite. Being the underdog might just give Newman and the No. 31 team the slight edge that it needs to win the championship. Crew chief Luke Lambert has made some daring calls throughout the Chase to put the team in this position. Entering this year, he had never been in the Chase, but he nearly won the 2012 NASCAR Nationwide Series title with Elliott Sadler.
At Homestead, Newman might not be the quickest of the bunch, but nonetheless, the team needs this championship. Childress lost Harvick to SHR last year, and most didn’t think Newman would be able to carry the team. Dillon, has seen some struggles in his rookie year, but he certainly has a bright future. It would be a lot more settling for the organization to know that it’s capable of winning a title without a victory in the Cup Series. Dillon did it in the Nationwide Series last year, and although it is a different championship format, consistency plays off in both divisions.
“For me personally, just to have this opportunity, I know these guys can sit here and say the same thing, this is a chance for a dream to come true,” said Newman. “Just to have a shot at it is amazing. You know, with respect to RCR and Dale Earnhardt, Sr., yeah, if you’re going to follow in anybody’s footsteps and have some history, that’s the man. But I won’t strap into the race car thinking of that next Sunday. I’ll strap into the race car thinking about what we’ve got to do to get the Caterpillar Chevrolet into victory lane.”
Even if the No. 31 doesn’t hold the championship trophy at Homestead, making it to the final four when Newman was going to finish just inside of the top 10 in points is certainly a moral victory for all of RCR heading into 2015.
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