Thursday, August 16, 2007

Ryan Newman tries to regain his lost magic

It was not long ago that Ryan Newman was the talk of NASCAR.

In 2003, the young Penske Racing driver was teammates with one of the most heralded drivers in racing history, was winning poles at a clip of about one every three races and was making a home in Victory Lane.


Times sure have changed.


With a bunch of new faces around him, Newman is clinging to the hope that he can drive the No. 12 Alltel Dodge into the Chase for the Championship over the next four races starting with Sunday's 3M Performance 400 at Michigan International Speedway.


Just four years ago, with veteran Rusty Wallace as his teammate, Newman captured an astounding 11 poles and won eight races. The only other active drivers in the last 10 years to win eight or more races in a season are Jimmie Johnson, who won eight in 2004, and Jeff Gordon, who won 13 in 1998.


Newman did not expect to win eight races the next season. He expected to win more.


"I thought we would do better the next year and better the year after," Newman said. "That's just the way it would work."


It didn't. Newman's team underwent numerous changes over the course of the next few years, including the biggest when crew chief Matt Borland was replaced before this season by Mike Nelson. Results have been slow to come. Newman won a total of three races and finished in the top five 19 total times in 2004 and 2005. During the past two seasons, he has no victories and five top-fives.


That's part of the reason he's 13th in the standings with only four races left to determine the 12 drivers who make the Chase.


He also developed a rather bitter feud with Wallace, who retired from full-time racing after the 2005 season. The volatile Kurt Busch is now his Penske teammate, not that it matters much to Newman.


"I still feel as a driver I'm fully capable of winning those eight races plus per year," Newman said. "The team and the people are what make the difference. We've had pretty much every member of the team, besides the truck driver, change positions or we have new people.

"We're kind of starting over."


Starting is one thing, finishing is another. And that's something that's kept Newman's seasons from being better than they have. In his eight-win season of 2003, he finished just sixth in points due to seven DNFs. He had nine more the next year when he was seventh in points.


Such poor finishes have not been an issue for Newman at MIS. He owns two victories and two other top-five finishes with one DNF in 12 starts there.

"I think we've got a good opportunity," Newman said. "It's a fun racetrack to race as far as a driver goes. You can do some really good racing there. Just a matter of getting the job done."

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