As we await the next round of NASCAR Hall of Fame nominees, it’s natural to look to the current active drivers who are nearing retirement age (for drivers not named Harry Gant or Mark Martin) and wonder who might be eligible for future nomination.
Having made 700 career starts this past Sunday at Kansas Speedway, Ryan Newman may soon be under consideration for inclusion. Does the body of work of the Rocket Man make him worth of donning the blue blazer? This week, Vito Pugliese and Amy Henderson go head-to-head to debate this topic in 2-Headed Monster.
Keystone Wins Means Good Enough to Get In
Newman’s career in the Cup Series got off to a stellar start. His rookie season of 2002 saw him go head-to-head with eventual seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson – and win Rookie of the Year (ROTY) honors. Winning a race, six poles and finishing sixth in points was definitely cause for celebration and expectation of future success. It also was the second time in NASCAR history a rookie won NASCAR’s All-Star race following Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s win in 2000. He did it the hard way too, winning the Open event to transfer and starting at the rear to win the main event.
2003 saw eight wins and 11 pole positions – cementing his legacy as the driver you had to outlast in the days of wide-open, single-car qualifying, holding on for dear life for two laps. A pair of wins and eight poles in 2004 was a bit of a dip in performance, but a seventh-place points finish still had him solidly in the top 10.
From there, his performance did wane a bit. One win in 2005 was followed by a pair of winless seasons, then in 2008 he won the biggest race of his career – the 2008 Daytona 500. One of only a handful of races where they refer to you as the “champion” – not just the winner – and the Super Bowl of our sport – this alone should be worthy of Hall of Fame inclusion. If you win the single most important race in a series, then you should have a spot in its building that pays homage to its greatest participants. Whenever Dale Earnhardt is profiled, what win do they show? What about Dale Jr., Davey Allison, or Bill Elliott? The Daytona 500.
Newman also managed to win the 2013 Brickyard 400, ironically a couple of weeks after he learned he wouldn’t be back at Stewart-Haas Racing the following season. He moved to Richard Childress Racing, taking over the reins of the No. 31 Chevrolet in the 2014 season. While the stats will show he finished second in points, it doesn’t tell the whole story.
On a restart with three laps to go, eventual champion Kevin Harvick was leading, with Newman running second. It would have been really easy for Newman to wash up and deposit Harvick in the wall and win the title – but he didn’t. Two laps from a title, the driver who has earned a reputation of being the hardest one to pass under any circumstances, did not pull what has become accepted in the form of a bump-and-run – or dump-and-run in many circumstances.
And lest it go unmentioned, there was last year’s Daytona 500 accident. A harrowing scene played out in prime time, where millions of people thought they had seen a man lose his life in violent, graphic accident, yards from winning his second Great American Race. Newman survived, walking out of the hospital a few days later with his daughters in hand. Each some of the most iconic images in the history of NASCAR, and a story that garnered national attention.
There’s a misconception that the Hall of Fame is only for members who have won more than 50 races or multiple championships. If that was the case, we’d have a pretty thin class right now and not a whole lot of activity. It’s the Hall of Fame, not statistics, and given his role in the early 2000s as NASCAR’s next generation of young sub-30 year old stars, Newman’s accomplishments still get him in on his own merits. – Vito Pugliese
The Bar Has to Be Higher
Twenty years with 18 wins and 51 poles to date, plus Rookie of the Year honors (beating out Jimmie Johnson, no less) make up quite a NASCAR Cup Series career. After all, fewer than 200 drivers have won even one race, let alone score double-digit victories.
It’s an impressive career, but not a Hall of Fame one.
Ryan Newman burst onto the NASCAR scene in 2000, making his first Cup start before he ran a race in any other NASCAR national series. He’s one of the only drivers left who can boast he raced against Dale Earnhardt, if only once.
In his 2003 sophomore season, Newman won eight times and started 11 races on the pole. Had he matched that torrid pace throughout his career, we’d be having a different discussion altogether. But while he would win twice in 2004, he’s never visited victory lane more than once a year since, and averages just under a win a year for the course of his career. His last victory was the spring race at Phoenix in 2017.
He’s also responsible for a safety innovation in the form of a roll bar that ended up saving his own life in a horrific Daytona 500 crash.
He has been, for most of his career to date, a very solid driver. But solid isn’t Hall of Fame worthy.
This isn’t anything against Newman, specifically. It’s about where we want the bar to be that separates the best of all time from … well, from the solid.
Newman has been solid. At 18 wins, he matches Geoffrey Bodine, Neil Bonnett, Harry Gant and Kasey Kahne. All of whom, without Cup titles, have had careers that are — you guessed it — solid.
Are there drivers in the Hall with fewer wins? Yes: Curtis Turner, Cotton Owens, Red Byron and Alan Kulwicki have their spots. But you can’t compare them with Newman. Byron, Turner and Owens were pioneers of the sport; Kulwicki’s 1992 title as an independent owner sets him apart.
Drivers in the Hall with 19 wins include Davey Allison, whose career, like Kulwicki’s, was cut short by his untimely death, so there is some projection involved. Buddy Baker’s contributions outside the car as a broadcaster add to his credentials.
Newman has no extenuating circumstances. Other than that great 2003 season, he’s not a standout in an era that’s featured the likes of Tony Stewart, Jeff Gordon, Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick, Denny Hamlin and Johnson. And while each should be judged by the Hall of Fame panel on his own merits, it’s clear that Newman isn’t among the very best of his era.
The so-called Newman Bar is a major safety feature, but it doesn’t put Newman over the top.
The bar for Hall of Fame induction needs to be a high one, and it should not drop any lower. Twenty to 25 wins without a title is a grey area. Under 20 wins for a primarily Cup driver needs extenuating circumstances, pioneer status or multiple titles. Newman has none of those things, nor does he have a storied career in another NASCAR series that would put him in regardless of Cup numbers.
He just falls short. He falls short with some big names in Bodine, Bonnett, Gant and Kahne. They all have careers to be proud of. They just aren’t Hall of Fame material, because the bar has to stop somewhere, and it should be higher than averaging a win a year or so without a championship.
They were solid. And that’s something to hang a helmet on. – Amy Henderson