After five years with Stewart-Haas Racing, Ryan Newman seeks a new beginning with Richard Childress Racing for 2014. And RCR? It hopes Newman becomes the steadying, stable force inside the organization it just released in Jeff Burton.
When Kevin Harvick’s defection to SHR was made public over a year ago, the handwriting was on the wall for Newman in the No. 39 ride. Ultimately, the organizations made what amounted to a trade, with Newman slotting into Burton’s former No. 31 ride and Austin Dillon transitioning into Harvick’s seat. With the rookie, Dillon, and journeyman Paul Menard already signed on at RCR, the right free agent pickup was key to keep the company in position to challenge heavyweights like Hendrick Motorsports, Roush Fenway Racing and Joe Gibbs Racing.
On paper, the 36-year-old Newman seems to fit the bill at RCR. His record is more current than Burton’s, with wins in five of the last six seasons and five Chase appearances on the résumé. Since 2008, he joins Jimmie Johnson and Jamie McMurray as the only drivers to win both the Daytona 500 and Brickyard 400.
On the flip side, eight of Newman’s 17 career wins are bundled in one season with Penske Racing (2003), and he’s never finished higher than sixth in the final standings, so whether he’s a championship-caliber driver isn’t a question with an easy answer.
What became a tired act for former boss Gene Haas was Newman’s pesky habit of hovering right around the Chase’s cutoff. His “bubble” performance at Richmond last year, in which a win evaporated late in the race, was the trigger for the whole race-fixing fiasco. In the end, NASCAR’s penalties awarded him the spot, but historically he’s far from the postseason top-5 finisher that Harvick has been in five of the last eight years.
In a 16-team field, however, he’s easily capable of qualifying for the playoffs. What he does in such an inclusive (and eliminative) format remains to be seen.
At least Newman has funding and stability behind him — an issue that dampened his efforts at SHR. RCR reportedly has backing in place for his No. 31 for the entire season, as Quicken Loans will come with Newman for a dozen events, with staunch Childress-backer Caterpillar and WIX Filters along with Kwikset filling out the docket. Add in family funding from teammate Menard, which benefits the entire organization, and this team should have money to burn.
Luke Lambert will return to the No. 31 as crew chief in 2014 after guiding Burton to a handful of top-10 finishes last year. Lambert is a young talent in the garage, and some new ideas could give Newman an infusion of speed if the two see eye-to-eye. Lambert also has a history of working with veterans, making him big on both fuel-mileage and track-position gambles. That’ll mesh well with a driver who can thank in-race strategy plays to get in position on final restarts for two of his last four victories on tour.
Lambert’s first goal, though, will be to rebuild confidence following a 2013 roller coaster that left Newman too vulnerable for even good friend and co-owner Tony Stewart to save the pink slip. His final stats were still respectable: an 11th-place points finish, a win at Indianapolis and a pair of poles. But an 11th-hour inclusion in the Chase didn’t boost momentum like it did for Jeff Gordon. During the final 10 races, Newman never cracked the top 5, the only Chaser who failed to do so.
Of course, on-track success isn’t the only goal listed here. RCR tapped Newman for his brains as well as his talent; a strong mentor would be helpful to young Dillon and even Menard. There’s just a risk involved in labeling him “Jeff Burton Jr.” Newman’s role as a team player has been questioned in the past, and it’s unlikely that he’ll make a sudden about-face in that department. His engineering knowledge is extensive — as is Lambert’s — and that should undoubtedly be a plus, but they’ll have to make Newman want to share it outside the No. 31 circle.
Childress also seems to be overly focused on grandson Austin’s promotion to the Cup Series. It was enough to cause Harvick to leave in a huff; will playing second fiddle, a role Newman filled too much at SHR, eventually frustrate him?
All in all, Newman was a prime pickup for RCR in a market where the choices were limited. He’ll be a better example to Dillon than, say, the volatile Kurt Busch — who was rumored to fill this slot before Silly Season truly kicked in last year. But Newman doesn’t quite fill the driver’s shoes left by Harvick or the mentor’s role left by Burton. What he does bring is consistency, the ability to grab a win or two each year and the potential to contend for a Chase spot.
What the Competition is SayingAnonymous quotes from crew chiefs, owners and media
Ryan Newman’s No. 39 team was the leader of the pack at Stewart-Haas Racing last season — due in large part to teammate Tony Stewart’s season-ending injury after 21 races. How he adapts to the new environs at Richard Childress Racing this year will be key.
“He seems like he’s good at playing the strategy game — whether taking two tires or staying out,” a rival crew chief says. “He seems to be very capable of taking a car that shouldn’t win and putting it in a position to do so even if it doesn’t deserve to.”
“Newman’s consistency — particularly last year — wasn’t there,” another rival says. “He was either really good or really bad and, all around, his team was the best of the organization at SHR. We’ll see how that changes at RCR. Obviously, he’ll be working with a new group of guys, so we’ll find out if it was a chemistry issue the last few seasons.”
“A hard-nosed driver like Newman and an old-school racer like Childress? Heck, it seems to be a match made in heaven,” one media member says. “(Austin) Dillon’s effort in that No. 3 car will be the organization’s focal point, but that may actually benefit Newman and Luke Lambert. Let those two do their thing quietly in the background, and you just might be surprised with the results.”
Looking at Checkers: He’s usually good for about one win a year these days, and it seems the flatter the track, the better.
Pretty Solid Pick: Keep an eye on this bunch at Loudon — a track where Newman won in 2011, and where Luke Lambert engineered third- and eighth-place finishes for the 31 team last season.
Good Sleeper Pick: Newman hasn’t won in Jake and Elwood country since 2003, but he can claim top 10s in six of his last seven visits.
Runs on Seven Cylinders: Road courses, where Newman is 1-for-12 in the top 10 category in the CoT/Gen-6 era.
Insider Tip: Pairing the driver-engineer in Newman and the engineering-minded Lambert as crew chief in what many claim are indestructible cars at RCR will make for an intriguing watch.
No. 31 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet
Sponsors: Caterpillar/Quicken Loans/WIX Filters/Kwikset
Owner: Richard Childress
Crew Chief: Luke Lambert
Years with current team: 1
Under contract through: 2016
Best points finish: 6th (2002, ’03, ’05)
Hometown: South Bend, Ind.
Born: Dec. 8, 1977
Top photo by Action Sports, Inc.; Menard courtesy of Richard Childress Racing.
For coverage of Speedweeks and the entire 2014 NASCAR season, follow Matt Taliaferro on Twitter: @MattTaliaferro