In November 2000 at Phoenix International Raceway, Ryan Newman made his first start in what is now known as the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series. His engine expired after 176 laps, leading to a 41st-place finish. Newman was 22 years old when he ran that race. Austin Dillon was eight years old and Kyle Larson 10.
Newman would go on to have success early and often in his career, including an eight-win season in 2003, his second full season. Driving the No. 12 car for Team Penske, Newman was one of the “young guns” who took NASCAR by storm in the early 2000s. He and crew chief Matt Borland were best known for advancing an engineering-focused approach to their car setups.
More than a decade later, NASCAR has a new crop of young stars making headlines.
Larson, Chase Elliott and Erik Jones all had strong runs at Phoenix on Sunday, yet it was Newman, now a season veteran, who reached the finish line first, generating headlines for a driver, and team, who had not made many in recent years.
Following an uncertain sponsorship situation at Stewart-Haas Racing, Newman joined forces with Richard Childress Racing in 2014. That was the same year that Dillon moved up to NASCAR’s top division.
Dillon, team owner Richard Childress’ grandson, was coming off a championship in the then Nationwide Series. While the addition of Newman to RCR added a capable driver to the team’s roster, the expectation was that Dillon would be the man who could lead the organization into the future following Kevin Harvick’s departure.
However, 2014 marked the beginning of a long winless drought for RCR. Neither Newman, Dillon nor Paul Menard cracked Victory Lane. However, Newman carried the banner for the team by advancing all the way to the final round of the postseason. The No. 31 team even had the championship in their sights in the closing laps of the year, but lost to Harvick, who had moved to SHR.
Over the next few years, the Newman–Childress pairing was good, but not great. Newman could rack up enough good finishes to contend in the Chase, but he was rarely in a position to win races. That said, neither was Dillon. The entire Childress organization was good enough to be a good, but good was not enough to break the team’s winless drought.
Newman, in particular, seemed caught in a downward spiral. He made the postseason again in 2015, but got eliminated following the second round. In 2016, Newman had just one top-five finsh to his name through the first 25 events. Worse yet, he had slipped below the Chase cutoff and needed either a win or a 22-point gain on 16th place at Richmond to qualify for the postseason. Yet Newman’s hopes ended in a pile-up within 50 laps of the finish, which left him out of the postseason for the first time since 2012.
On the other hand, things were looking up for Dillon. The No. 3 team earned four top 10s in the first six races of 2016, launching Dillon to seventh in points. While his consistency wavered during the middle of the season, Dillon built up enough of a points cushion to ease his way into the Chase. Once in the postseason, he put up a respectable fight, falling only one point short of advancing to the third round.
It looked like the torch had finally been passed at RCR. Dillon did not break the team’s long winless streak, but his Chase run appeared to set him up for future success, as well as to capture that elusive first win. Meanwhile, questions swirled about whether or not Newman would be back with RCR in 2017. It seemed that both parties were far removed from their glory days. Although the pairing had not been a bust, Newman and RCR looked like it was not going to be a winning combination.
Finally, in 2017, RCR is back in Victory Lane in the Cup Series. The win came at Phoenix, the sight of the organization’s last Cup victory. And who delivered the win? Ryan Newman, the veteran.
Newman’s crew chief, Luke Lambert, certainly deserves a lot of credit for the win. The No. 31 team was having yet another good, but not great day, until Lambert’s decision to leave Newman on the track during a late caution put the No. 31 car in the top spot.
However, Newman still had to drive the car for two green flag laps. He did so excellently, blasting away from the pack on the final restart. As NASCAR’s younger stars jockeyed for position behind him, Newman brought home the victory for which RCR had waited for over three years.
The win is no guarantee that RCR will now be able to match NASCAR’s top organizations speed-wise on a weekly basis. Dillon could also snare a victory and punch his ticket to the post-season as well. Yet for the moment, Newman gets another day in the sun instead of another day riding off into the sunset.
Newman is not a young gun anymore. He is not done, either.