Ryan Newman spent the early part of his NASCAR career demonstrating why his nickname Rocket Man was an appropriate moniker. But lately, it seems such descriptions aren’t as fitting as they once were.
Such was the case yet again for Newman in 2016.
After participating in the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship each of the prior three seasons, Newman began the year fully expecting to make the Chase again, and both Newman and the Richard Childress Racing team were no doubt eyeing a return to Victory Lane, with Newman having not won since the 2013 Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis, his final year at Stewart-Haas Racing.
Newman brought the team to the brink of winning a title in 2014, finishing second in points despite a winless season. Similar stats in 2015 landed the team 11th in the final standings. This gave the organization plenty of optimism that there would be more of the same in 2016.
Optimism that, while admirable, proved to be difficult to match with positive results.
It wasn’t for a lack of effort on the part of Richard Childress Racing. The Welcome, North Carolina-based organization possesses six series championships and 105 wins at the top level of NASCAR. But lately, competitive runs have become more and more difficult to come by. No driver not named Kevin Harvick has won out of the RCR shop since 2011. Austin Dillon has shown flashes of promise but isn’t quite running up front week in and week out. Right now, the team is simply trying to regain the level of prominence that it once held.
Newman is trying resurrect his career much in the same way that team owner Richard Childress is trying to reinvigorate his team. For Newman, he enjoyed his greatest success in the early 2000s driving for Roger Penske. Newman and Penske claimed 13 wins, a staggering eight of which came in 2003. His resume is highlighted by the 2008 Daytona 500 victory, when he was shoved to the lead on the last lap by teammate Kurt Busch.
As for 2016, Newman began the season much in the same way he has run throughout his tenure at RCR. His finishes were solid, but well short of spectacular. A pair of top 10s on the short tracks at Martinsville Speedway and Bristol Motor Speedway highlighted the opening weeks. The RCR team finished those events 10th and ninth respectively.
Consistency was the name of the game for Newman and crew chief Luke Lambert, with a crash at Phoenix producing the team’s lone DNF of the first half. . The car became a fixture in the top 20, finishing between seventh and 18th in all but three of the races during the first half of the year.
Despite another crash knocking them out of the Brickyard 400, Newman sat 11th in the standings following the race at Watkins Glen International in August. With only four races to go until the cutoff for the 16-team Chase, the No. 31 appeared to have a solid shot at extending Newman’s Chase participation streak to four years. A poor run at Bristol the following week dropped him back to 14th, but Newman was still within striking distance of a Chase slot heading to the final event before the cutoff.
Then came Richmond.
Richmond International Raceway proved to be the turning point of the year for the No. 31 team. The consistency it had worked so hard for throughout the season was undone on lap 363. Friend and former teammate Tony Stewart turned Newman into the inside wall on the backstretch. Several other cars piled in, ending Newman’s race along with his aspirations of making the Chase. Newman was incensed, ripping Stewart’s aggressive driving and implying that Stewart has “anger issues” that contribute to how he reacts to incidents while racing.
Newman showed consistency over the final 10 weeks that made missing the Chase even more difficult to take. In the playoff events, Newman scored top-20 finishes in all but one, a 25th at Homestead-Miami Speedway, the season finale. A fourth-place run at Charlotte Motor Speedway in October was just the second top 5 of the year for the team. This finish managed to provide a highlight for what was undoubtedly a disappointing outcome to 2016.
However difficult 2016 was for the team, there’s still time to right the ship. While not the juggernaut they once were, the cars are capable and rarely run poorly. When Newman finishes outside of the top 20, it is generally due to some sort of misfortune rather than lack of competitive speed.
The RCR team will return to the track in 2017 for its fourth season with the same driver, crew chief and contingent of sponsors. An organization that can maintain a certain level of continuity in a sport where such things change regularly will likely see a benefit. Top-5 finishes, race wins and a Chase berth are once again the goals in the coming season, and many in the garage feel it’s very possible for the team to attain those goals.
I’d be willing to bet Rocket Man certainly does.