It's a familiar and unsettling story for Ryan Newman.
Running in the top 10 two-thirds of the way through last Sunday's NASCAR Nextel Cup race at Atlanta, Newman's No. 12 Penske Dodge encounters engine trouble and he winds up finishing 37th.
Engine failures, flat tires, crashes and a multitude of gremlins. All have seemingly been constant companions since the 2004 season for a driver once considered a top star in the elite stock car series.
Newman won 35 poles and had 12 victories through 2005, his fourth full season in Cup races. Since then, there has been little to celebrate, other than an occasional pole for the guy whose consistent speed on qualifying day earned the nickname "Rocketman."
His last win came at New Hampshire in the fall of 2005, but a recent resurgence has raised a few eyebrows in the garage and done wonders for the 2002 Rookie of the Year's confidence.
In the three weeks before Atlanta, Newman had finishes of fifth at Talladega, 28th at Charlotte and second at Martinsville. He could just as easily have won all of them, including the Charlotte race where a blown tire knocked him out of the lead and sent his car into the wall with five laps remaining.
"The performance has been a lot better," Newman said. "It's all attributed to teamwork and just pure car performance -- that's the biggest thing. Everybody at the shop has done a great job to step up and be better.
"We had a big personnel change in the offseason, and that was hard to battle through. Secondly, the performance of the race car has improved dramatically in the last half of the season. Those three races we had a shot of winning in the last three laps. Not everybody can say that. Especially after a rebound, it's nice to be able to say that."
Although he missed out on the Chase for the championship for the second consecutive year and is currently 16th in the standings, Newman is feeling good about the present and the future heading into the final three events of 2007, starting with Sunday's race at Texas Motor Speedway.
He's even OK answering questions about not winning his most recent races.
"I'm glad we're rebounding to the point where we can talk about it," he said. "There's potential. We didn't have potential for a long time.
"Before this year, I lost a lot of confidence as a driver. I didn't lose any ability, but the confidence gives you that extra edge. The ability just allows you to do it and that confidence is what's helped me with my qualifying and getting better track position, which helps us all the way through the race."
Another big part of the resurgence is the rapport Newman has developed with teammate Kurt Busch, who replaced longtime NASCAR star Rusty Wallace in the team's No. 2 Miller Lite Dodge in 2006. It was no secret that Newman and Wallace did not get along and had little communication.
Busch made the 12-man Chase this year with his own late-season surge after Pat Tryson took over as his crew chief. And the friendship of the two drivers, as well as Tryson and Mike Nelson, Newman's crew chief, has made a difference.
"The relationship between Kurt and me has been good and I think, more importantly, the teams, the two crew chiefs, the race engineers, even down to the shock guys," Newman said. "I've seen Miller Lite shirts in my truck 100 times more this year than I have in the last six years put together. And vice versa."
Team owner Roger Penske likes what he is seeing from Newman.
"Ryan's a great race driver and it's just a matter of getting the right car under him," Penske said. "And I think he's got confidence now. He's had a couple of tough breaks with some engine issues. But, overall, I think we've got a solid guy there and you're going to see a great last couple of races."
Sunday, November 4, 2007