There are two ways to view Ryan Newman’s 2014 season, and both paint a picture of what 2015 could look like as Newman enters his second year driving for Richard Childress Racing. Statistically, it will go down as his best season ever in terms of consistency. Posting a career-best points finish (runner-up), he was just one Kevin Harvick slip away from becoming the Sprint Cup champion. His average finish of 12.7 was also the best of his 13 full seasons as a Cup competitor, as were his impressive 31 lead-lap finishes in 36 starts.
On the other hand, Newman scored only five top-5 finishes; it would have been the worst total for a NASCAR champion since 1949, and it made his appearance in Homestead’s Final Four controversial. He didn’t win a race all season, the first time that’s happened in five years. Newman led just 41 laps all year, ranking just 22nd in Cup in that category, and he never scored a pole, ruining a penchant for qualifying that was once “Rocket Man’s” trademark.
That makes Newman’s season and his future with RCR hard to gauge. Can he become the Chase Cinderella in 2015, or will the reality of being a 10th- to 15th-place car most weeks come back to bite him? Most likely, it will be a little of both. As the veteran of this three-car operation, Newman shouldn’t see his consistency drop off too much. Newman’s not getting the top finishes, but he is finishing races and making the most of his equipment.
Once Newman is in the Chase, he’s shown that he knows exactly how to play the system (see: mind-numbing top-10 finishes). He doesn’t take the risks that other drivers take, limiting rewards, but when the risks caught up with much of the competition, Newman was home free.
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Newman will benefit from stability. In 2014, he had to learn to work with a new crew and organization, but the learning curve is now behind him. Newman and underrated crew chief Luke Lambert can concentrate on taking the momentum of their runner-up finish and improving their formula. Newman has stable sponsorship from Caterpillar, Quicken Loans and WIX Filters, so there should be few distractions.
The last piece of the puzzle for Newman is equipment. What RCR lacks in speed within the engine department, it makes up for in durability; exactly one car failed to finish a race due to mechanical failure. The question is whether racing luck can shine with that amount of regularity on one organization once again. Newman also ruffled feathers in the Chase, roughing up Kyle Larson in Phoenix just to advance to the final round and knocking out potential champion Jeff Gordon. One race of bad feelings carrying over is all it takes, especially for a team with such a limited margin for error.
If nothing changes over the winter, Newman and Co. will have to hope that lightning strikes twice. This team, despite having a great driver and crew chief, might not even win a race in 2015. But it has proven it can’t be overlooked, either, because top 10’ing them to death nearly worked in ’14.
Speed on soft intermediates Newman’s valiant effort in the season finale at Homestead resulted in his best finish of the season, but it wasn’t much of a surprise. At soft intermediate tracks — Homestead, Kansas, Kentucky and Chicagoland — he averaged a 7.4-place finish, his best average finish per track type of 2014.
A gainer at Talladega RCR equipment is used to running near the front at Talladega, but Newman’s laid-back strategy also worked in 2014. In the two ’Dega races, Newman finished 23.8 and 11.4 spots better than his average running positions, respectively.
Consistency kills Newman finished in the top 20 a series-high 32 times (88.89 percent of the season) in 2014. That might not mean much for fantasy owners, but the team’s point-padding ways should again put them in Chase contention.
No. 31 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet
Primary Sponsors: Caterpillar, Quicken Loans, WIX Filters
Owner: Richard Childress
Crew Chief: Luke Lambert
Year With Current Team: 2nd
Under Contract Through: 2016
Best Points Finish: 2nd (2014)
Hometown: South Bend, Ind.
Born: Dec. 8, 1977
Car photo by Action Sports, Inc.; Newman photo courtesy of HHP/Harold Hinson