Previews, predictions and stats for Ryan Newman and the No. 39 team
Ryan Newman enters 2013 knowing he has to perform. Entering his 12th full year of Cup competition, the 2002 Rookie of the Year has 16 career wins, 49 poles and six top-10 points finishes. But Newman still leaves the sense he’s never quite lived up to his full potential.
Since his sophomore season in 2003 — one that left him short of a title despite including eight victories and 11 poles — Newman has won a total of only seven races. During his stint at Stewart-Haas Racing, he’s missed the Chase twice in four seasons, never finishing better than ninth in points, and clearly remains a step below championship contention. This begs the question: Is Newman still considered an elite driver because he has convinced us all that he’s the smartest guy in the room? Maybe so.
The Indiana native and vehicle structure engineering major has also had the unfortunate timing to spend his career in the shadow of fellow 2002 freshman Jimmie Johnson, who has 60 wins and five championships in the same time frame. But Newman doesn’t need a repeat of ’03 or to lay down numbers like Johnson’s in 2013. To stay employed, he simply needs to find consistency, an Achilles heel throughout a roller-coaster 2012 season for SHR.
Even Newman’s lone victory, a Martinsville surprise that was the result of Clint Bowyer-Jeff Gordon Round 1, couldn’t keep him in contention for the postseason. Nine finishes of 20th or worse in the first 25 races were a killer, especially during a year where so many one-win drivers battled for a spot. A total of five DNFs (four for wrecks) tied Newman with Gordon for second-worst among the top-20 wheelmen last year in that category. Only Johnson (six) failed to finish more races. The driver nicknamed “Rocket Man” couldn’t even win a pole, the first time since running a limited schedule in 2001 that he failed to do so.
That turned a potential free-agent year for Newman into a free fall. After he lost out on the few good rides available (Gibbs, Penske), sources claim he re-signed with SHR for reportedly as little as a quarter of the price, a one-year deal that was likely his only option. The pay cut was not a negotiating tactic, but a necessity after Newman’s longtime sponsor, the U.S. Army, opted out. Quicken Loans, who sponsored Newman for nine races in 2012, doubled its commitment for the upcoming season. Support also comes from Outback Steakhouse, WIX Filters, Aspen Dental and Code 3 Associates. Co-owner Gene Haas’ Automation business is expected to fill out the schedule; however, the total funding pales in comparison.
The good news is that Newman can win races with the right personnel, and a crew chief switch gives him the best chance. Reuniting with Matt Borland, with whom Newman engineered that eight-win ’03 season at Penske Racing, has left him more enthusiastic than any time in recent memory. If the two can rekindle just a little of that chemistry, it could be enough for Newman to grab a Chase berth. However, Borland hasn’t been on top of a Sprint Cup pit box since 2007, and the game has changed since then. In his role as SHR Technical Director, Borland didn’t make the strategy calls every week, and in a track-position world those have become just as critical as the engineering excellence the pair was once known for.
Stewart-Haas does use Hendrick chassis and engines, which are known for both speed and durability and have been responsible for six of the last seven Sprint Cup championships. Newman’s outgoing crew chief, Tony Gibson, remains with the organization, taking the reins for Danica Patrick, and he works well with Steve Addington, Stewart’s head wrench. Add in Borland, and that’s a powerful triumvirate; their collective knowledge is a clear advantage.
But among the three drivers, Newman’s team starts the season with the most pressure. Stewart’s and Danica’s name value makes them untouchable, meaning any necessary cost-cutting will come from the No. 39. How much cost-cutting remains to be seen, as the team hopes to expand to four cars in 2014 with Kevin Harvick — and if sponsorship doesn’t materialize for Newman, Harvick could potentially move into the No. 39 instead of a fourth car.
While there is no doubt that Newman is under intense pressure to perform in 2013, the pieces are there for him to succeed. He’ll be among a group of drivers with a realistic shot at a Chase berth, and he could make it in if the chips fall right. But this much we know: He’ll probably need a Chase berth to survive at the Cup level with SHR or any other top-level organization in 2014.
What the Competition is Saying
Anonymous quotes from crew chiefs, competitors and media
“The Rocket Man’s label might be fizzling out,” a rival crew chief notes. “I believe last year was the first in his career that he didn’t win a pole. Whether that means he’s slowing down, or he just realized they don’t pay points for poles, I don’t know.”
Another crew chief will pay close attention to the Newman/Matt Borland combo, which experienced success in the past:
“It’s going to be interesting to see how he and Borland do together again. His only really successful year (2003) was with Borland, and they won most all of their races that year on fuel and tire strategies, not by being the best car. That said, the series has become more about fuel and tires again, so those two may have a stellar year.”
“There are a lot of questions, long-term, for Newman,” a media member says. “Newman is a guy that wouldn’t stay unemployed for long, but with sponsorship issues surrounding that No. 39 team and a pair of teammates that steal all the attention, it’s no wonder he’s only signed at SHR for one year. I think he needs to have a big season — win a couple races and make the Chase. If he does so, it’ll help his 2014 prospects exponentially.”
Looking at Checkers: Newman can always be counted on for a strong showing in Phoenix, where he has five top 5s in the last six races.
Pretty Solid Pick: Three of his 16 Cup wins have come at Stewart-Haas Racing: Phoenix (2010), Loudon (2011) and Martinsville (2012).
Good Sleeper Pick: Has no Darlington wins, but he can get around the old joint.
Runs on Seven Cylinders: The rest of the field seems to have gotten better on the road courses. Newman has not.
Insider Tip: Good for about a win per season with SHR, but seems to live squarely on the Chase bubble.
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