2011 NASCAR Preview: The Top 30 Driver Countdown
2011 Driver Countdown
No. 39 U.S. Army/Tornados Chevrolet
Team: Stewart-Haas Racing
Owner: Tony Stewart/Gene Haas
Crew Chief: Tony Gibson
Years with current team: 3
Under contract through: 2011
Best points finish: 6th (2002, ’03, ’05)
Hometown: South Bend, Ind.
Born: December 8, 1977
As a shy 25-year-old out of Indiana, NASCAR’s introverted intellectual was the sport’s hottest commodity. Ryan Newman won the 2002 Rookie of the Year and followed it with a sophomore season that was anything but a slump, scoring eight wins and an eye-popping 11 poles. It was only a matter of time, it seemed, until the Purdue graduate reached the top with powerhouse Penske Racing. Surely, he would win a title before 2002’s rookie runner-up, Jimmie Johnson. Right?
Fast-forward to 2011, and the now-33-year-old Newman has seen those tables turn. As Johnson has risen to the pinnacle of success, Newman is searching for the right direction on his career GPS. The only thing remaining red hot about this man is his temper, as Joey Logano and Kasey Kahne found out during awkward post-race confrontations last fall.
As he enters his third year with Stewart-Haas Racing, putting a cap on that frustration seems to be the key to Newman’s future. After two ugly Talladega wrecks in two years, he’s gone on a personal crusade against plate racing, hammering NASCAR to the point that it levied a “secret fine” against Newman that publicly embarrassed both sides. At least in public, the enjoyment he sought so desperately upon leaving Penske in 2008 has eluded him.
“I told Tony, ‘I’m here to have fun. I want to have fun with you,’” he said in 2009. “That’s what racing hasn’t been a whole lot of for me lately due to the fact we had success in ’02, ’03, part of ’04, and since then it hasn't been as successful. I look forward to having fun again.”
Will those days ever come? SHR initially breathed new life into Newman, when he jumped to ninth in points his first year in the No. 39. However, inconsistency, combined with handling horrors, relegated his 2010 finish to 15th. Getting back to the top from there won’t be easy, simply because of his place in the pecking order. One could argue he’s sixth on a totem pole of chassis and engine alliances between four-car Hendrick Motorsports and two-car team SHR.
The man is smart enough to know his nemesis: inconsistency. Even in that brilliant 2003 campaign he fell victim to it, collecting 22 top-10 finishes that were offset by finishes of 22nd or worse in 11 others, including seven DNFs, and that ugly pattern remains.
So what does Newman have going for him? For starters, he and Stewart may be the closest set of teammates in the business. They work well together, and Newman was widely credited with the boss’ shocking 2010 summer turnaround. Second, Hendrick Motorsports’ hand-me-down equipment still holds its value. After all, HMS has produced six championships in the last decade, so the leftovers are certainly going to taste better.
Newman is also a mechanical engineer who understands how racecars work. Drivers have become specialized, and many have never poked their heads under the hood on their own cars like the rough ’n’ tumble sort of years gone by. Not only can Newman turn a wrench, he can also thoroughly analyze a car’s performance, maintaining a wealth of chassis knowledge.
But brain cells can’t substitute for cold, hard cash, and Newman’s team had to rely on co-owner Gene Haas’ automation company for funding in several 2010 events. That scenario will happen again, with Haas picking up at least a dozen races along with the U.S. Army’s 15 and Tornados’ half dozen (to be fair, the organization maintains that this car is financially sound). It’s not that his sponsors don’t back Newman 100 percent — it’s a worry that he doesn’t have sponsorship 100 percent of the time.
If he and crew chief Tony Gibson can get out of the starting gate quickly, they could surprise. Gibson is a veteran of nearly 30 years and no stranger to winning, having worked with Jeff Gordon and Alan Kulwicki in title runs.
Newman has something to prove in 2011. Competitive at both short tracks and flat intermediates, he must step up at both the banked 1.5-milers and plate tracks that prove disastrous for him. Mainly, though, Newman needs consistency to kick this career out of neutral.
What The Competition Is Saying
Thoughts from anonymous garage-area owners, crew chiefs and team members.
Stardom is slip-sliding away from Newman. “I think this is a big year for Newman and for his future with Stewart-Haas,” says a prominent crew chief. “I think he needs a good solid year — more than one win, make the Chase — or else he’s going to grow weary of playing second fiddle to Tony Stewart.”
“Remember,” says another, “Ryan Newman is the guy who beat out Jimmie Johnson for Rookie of the Year in 2002. You’ll never get Newman to admit it, but I think, at some level, that eats at him.”
A team owner says, “If he decides he wants to move along again, and I certainly don’t think he has, but he’ll find another good ride because, quite simply, he’s talented. There aren’t many people out there who ever won eight races in a single year (2003). And, by the way, Tony Stewart ain’t one of them.”
Looking at Checkers: No wins at Darlington yet, but Newman has eight finishes of ninth or better in 12 starts.
Pretty Solid Pick: He’s a top-10 performer at Bristol.
Good Sleeper Pick: Not known for his road-racing prowess, but in actuality, the results aren’t bad.
Runs on Seven Cylinders: The Brickyard hasn’t made for a good home-track advantage for this Hoosier.
Insider Tip: Top 10s are always a possibility with Newman, but the wins are becoming fewer and fewer.
Top 5s: 4
Top 10s: 14
Laps Led: 63
Laps Completed: 10,522
Lead Lap Finishes: 28
Bonus Points: 40
Races Led: 8
Average Start: 11.9
Average Finish: 15.7
After First 26 Races: 13th
Final Points Standing: 15th
Driver Rating: 82.2 (18th)