Wednesday, July 25, 2007

'Rocketman' closer to returning to Victory Lane

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Winning poles is the easy part for Ryan Newman. Getting to Victory Lane is another matter.

Newman's winless streak reached 59 races on June 10 when rain denied him a chance at victory at Pocono Raceway. NASCAR stopped the race seconds before Newman pulled alongside Jeff Gordon in a challenge for the lead, and he was frozen in second place.

Newman had about 30 minutes to wonder what might have been as he and Gordon waited on pit road for the rain to subside. It never happened, NASCAR canceled the rest of the race, and Gordon was credited with his fourth victory of the season.

Instead of lamenting his bad luck, Newman considered it karma.

"Unfortunately, the rain came on the wrong lap," Newman said. "I'm not mad by any means. I won my first race because it rained out and got too dark. I guess it's only right I lose one that way at some point."

Newman's 2002 victory at New Hampshire came in a race that was delayed by rain and then shortened when NASCAR ran out of daylight. So he's even now -- if the Pocono race had gone one minute longer, Newman would have celebrated in Victory Lane.

Newman used to be a regular there, with 12 wins in four seasons. But the two-time championship contender hit hard times and hasn't won a race since 2005. His winless streak now stands at 64 heading into the Allstate 400 at the Brickyard in Indianapolis with 17 races remaining in the season.

Even more alarming was a lack of speed, which "The Rocketman" was famous for while racking up pole after pole. He did so at an average of one every five races.

He had 11 of them in 2003, the year he won eight races. There were nine poles the next season, and eight in 2005 when he only won one race.

But his winless 2006 season saw his qualifying prowess rapidly decline and Newman only won two poles all year. Crew chief Matt Borland, who had been with Newman for all 12 of his career victories, was ousted at season's end.

The change gave Newman new leadership for the first time in his career, and it's taken almost six months for the No. 12 team to get back on track.

And make no mistake about it, Newman is officially back.

Sure he lost the race on June 10 at Pocono, but it was his second consecutive runner-up finish. And he had won the previous three poles -- four in all this season -- to prove he's still the best at pushing the pedal to the floor for one white-knuckle lap.

Newman knows that's the first step toward winning races.

"I never thought it would have slipped away in the first place," he said. "I think as long as we keep putting ourselves in position and qualifying, as well as having fast race cars in the race ... we'll be in position at some point.

"It would be nice to click off three wins in a row and not just three poles in a row."

The finishes are improving, and Newman's been in the top 10 for eight of the past 12 races through Chicagoland on July 15. It's put him back into title contention, raising him from 26th to 13th in the standings, and he's only 30 points away from moving becoming eligible for the Chase for the championship.

Newman, who qualified for the Chase in 2004 and 2005, missed badly last year when he finished a career-worst 18th in the season standings.

Now that he's turned the corner, he won't let one rainy day ruin his mood.

"I watched Gordon go through his so-called slump where he hadn't won any poles or races in so long -- when it's not happening to you, you don't think it's going to happen," Newman said. "I guess at some point whether it's the team or driver of the combination, it may get away. It's definitely difficult to go through that time and it makes you appreciate when you get back running better."

1 comment:

charlie said...

Nice post Mike, as always.

We are heading to Indy Friday and hope to get a one on one interview with Ryan. I'll let you know.