After a slow start to the season, Ryan Newman finally is getting up to speed.
Newman earned his sixth career pole at Lowe's Motor Speedway on Thursday night as he attempts his fourth consecutive top-10 finish when the grid lines up for the Coca-Cola 600 (5:30 p.m. ET Sunday, FOX).
Newman had only one top-10 in the first eight races of the season, and when he finished 38th at Phoenix he was 26th in points. He has since moved up 13 spots in the standings in the span of three points races.
After posting his first top-five of the year most recently at Darlington, Newman found himself 14th in points. He moved up another spot without ever having to take to the track when Dale Earnhardt Jr. was penalized 100 points for a rules violation at Darlington.
Newman has put together runs of ninth, sixth and fourth place in the past month, and two weeks ago led 39 laps at Darlington, the first time he's led more than one lap in any race this season.
"We've been running really well the last few weeks and it's showed at the end of the race," said Newman, who has gone 56 consecutive races without a win. "We've improved our finishes each of the last three weeks and it's just a matter of time before we get this Alltel Dodge back into Victory Lane. We'd really like to do that this weekend in front of all of our family and friends."
Newman just wasn't blowing smoke when he praised his car this week. During Bud Pole Qualifying, Newman raced around the 1.5-mile track in 29.140 seconds (185.312 mph) to earn his second pole of the season.
"We're bringing a good car with us to Charlotte this weekend," said Newman, who lowered his average starting position at Lowe's from 4.5 to 3.8 with his 39th career pole.
The last time Newman, who will be making his 200th career start, had four consecutive top-10 finishes was two years ago. Lowe's Motor Speedway was a part of that string, too, as Newman started the 2005 Coca-Cola 600 from the pole and finished fifth.
Penske racing teammate Kurt Busch will start on the outside of Newman. He navigated his Dodge around LMS in 29.179 seconds (185.065 mph). Busch also has make a significant jump in points, going from 20th to seventh in six races.
But Busch has only two top-10s in 13 LMS starts, and has a 25.2 average finish in six 600-mile races. He finished 39th and 32nd at LMS last year, his first in the No. 2 Dodge. But Busch has never qualified well at Lowe's, either, with only one top-10 start previously.
"I'm smart enough to know that this weekend's Coke 600 is a major big-picture hurdle for us, but we're confident we'll be prepared as possible for the challenge we're facing there this weekend," Busch said.
"As always, it'll still be about survival again in the 600 on Sunday. With the hard tires and the smaller fuel cells, it'll be extremely challenging for the pit crews. With all the stops we'll be making, their role in winning the race will be incredibly important."
The only other qualifier to top the 185 mph mark was the No. 19 Dodge of Elliott Sadler, who posted a time of 29.189 seconds (185.001). Sadler hasn't scored a top-10 since finishing sixth in the Daytona 500.
"Josh [Browne, team director] and the team have put together a good package for our Dodge Charger," Sadler said.
Sadler has only one top-10 finish in nine previous 600-mile races.
"The Coca-Cola 600 is the most demanding race in the Nextel Cup Series," said Sadler, who finished fifth in 2004. "It starts late afternoon and ends at night, four-and-a-half hours of racing. Staying focused as a driver is essential. Keeping up with the changing track conditions is a challenge for the teams."