There are questions surrounding Ryan Newman heading into the 2017 season, but perhaps the biggest one was already answered last season after Newman — who many believed would be looking for a new ride this year — re-signed with Richard Childress Racing to drive the No. 31 Chevrolet for the foreseeable future. That means he enters his 16th full season in NASCAR’s top series on solid ground.
But what can he do with the opportunity?
RCR’s racecars are good, but they are a step behind the top Chevrolet teams. The organization has struggled in recent seasons to sustain three cars at a competitive level, despite having good sponsorship deals and solid drivers. They’ll get solid finishes and contend for wins, but all three RCR teams fell just short of the winner’s circle last year.
Newman himself is also a bit of a mystery. What happened to the driver who won rookie honors (over Jimmie Johnson, no less) in 2002 and followed that up with an eight-win, 11-pole season in 2003? Newman is no doubt a solid, consistent driver, but he also has only five wins in the last 10 seasons, with the rest of his 17 career victories coming between 2002-05. He has seven top-10 points finishes but just one since 2011. Yet he’s two years younger than his former rookie rival Johnson and has raced for Chase-contending organizations, making his decline puzzling.
But while Newman’s best years are in the rear-view mirror, he’s still valuable because he’s solid. With 20 cars capable of top 10s most weeks, Newman puts his car near the front a decent share of the time. He’s failed to finish only five races in the last three seasons. He’s a solid top-15 driver week-in and week-out. To a team like RCR, that’s still worth something — even though Newman has a reputation for not always being a team player.
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Crew chief Luke Lambert returns to the pit box for his fourth season with Newman. The two mesh well; Newman can be volatile in the car, and Lambert takes it in stride. However, it’s hard to ignore a pair of inspection failures that cost Newman 25 points over the course of the year — not quite enough to be the sole cause of Newman missing the Chase, but damaging nonetheless, and part of a whopping 100 points lost for penalties in the last two seasons. The team needs to be careful not to let penalties take the wind out of its sails.
Car owner Childress certainly believes in Newman. Many believed that he’d replace Newman with his grandson, Ty Dillon, this season, but Childress offered Newman an extension and found a ride outside the immediate organization for Dillon. That kind of confidence goes a long way in instilling a team with determination, and Childress isn’t the only one who believes in the 39-year-old; sponsors have shown support as well. Caterpillar returns as primary backer for most of the season, and Grainger is back for several races as well, further solidifying Newman’s value to the team.
That confidence isn’t without its limits, though. With Dillon still waiting in the wings for an RCR seat, Newman needs to rekindle the magic that made him one of the sport’s hottest commodities in his early years — or at least the consistency that made him formidable for so many years afterward.