What a difference a year makes
by Pete McCole

April 27, 2006

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Ryan Newman

Take one look at the current Nextel Cup standings and you’ll see something surprising – drivers who dominated the early going in 2005 that are now barely able to crack into the top 25 in points.

Drivers like Carl Edwards and Greg Biffle – who until the last race of the 2005 season were in line to win the championship.

But look a little farther down the standings and you’ll find another slumping driver – Ryan Newman.

For Newman, a year has turned him from dreams of winning a championship to dreams of just trying to get back to victory lane.

Since coming into Nextel Cup as a rookie in 2002 with Penske Racing, Newman has been the man to beat on pole day, racking up 35 career poles.

In 2003, he enjoyed his best season to date - leading all drivers with eight wins and 11 poles, finishing 6th in points.

But his current slump has made those triumphs just distant memories.

So far this season: no wins, no poles, and one lone top five - at the season opening Daytona 500 – and three DNF’s including last weekend at Phoenix. He’s currently 22nd in series points, 191 points out of the 10th-place cutoff for the Chase for the Nextel Cup.

For someone as competitive as Newman, long considered a champion contender, his latest slump has been a demoralizing blow.

"The emotional feeling is obviously, I won't say depression, but sometimes disgust, sometimes frustration, sometimes a little bit just frustrated and upset,” said Newman.

“Even though we crashed out at Phoenix I had a smile on my face because that's one of the first times all year we've been competitive enough to pass cars and move up on runs. I don't think it was the fastest car on the track, but it showed a lot of highlights for us this year as far as being able to do things we used to be able to do without even questioning if we could do it.”

All things considered, there has been a lot of people questioning what has been happening to Penske Racing in the last six months.

At the conclusion of last season, Penske shuttered the no. 77 team of Travis Kvapil, making Penske a two-car operation. In addition, Newman has had to get acclimated to a new teammate in the no. 2 car – Kurt Busch.

“The bottom line is I know we had a rough off season at Penske Racing,” Newman said. “The entire transition of moving a lot of people around with the 2 car and our situation with losing more people and changing more people than we ever have in the past. I think that is part of it.”

In fact, Penske was so concerned with his team’s performances that the team switched back to the Dodge Intrepid for several races after struggling to keep up in the new Dodge Charger.

“I think we're playing catch-up with a few things technology-wise and I see that getting better over time, obviously,” said Newman. “We're definitely to a point where we're struggling now. It's not that we're running fifth to seventh and not winning races, we're struggling to get to seventh on any point in the race.”

However, Newman isn’t alone in his struggles.

With the exception of teammate Kurt Busch’s win at Bristol in March, none of the other Dodge teams have been able to find success at the racetrack.

That is, everyone except Evernham Motorsports, who have managed to put Kasey Kahne in victory lane twice this season.

“We're not looking at what Evernham's doing,” Newman said. “It's a combination of what the 9 car has going on, Kasey Kahne driving it and you can probably just stop right there. It seems like there's an obvious answer out there the way the 9 car has been running, but he's pretty much the sole exception.”

But according to Newman, gone are the days of Dodge’s “one-team” concept that Evernham preached when he spearheaded Dodge’s return to NASCAR five years ago.

“We wouldn't ever consider, at least me personally, going to Ray Evernham or Kasey Kahne or anyone there at Evernham Motorsports and ask them what they're doing,” said Newman. “I would expect the same thing in return. I wouldn't expect them to come to us and ask what we were doing if we were winning races.

“For us, we just have to focus on what we need to do and what we're doing and how we can correct the things that we've done wrong and do the things we've done right that much better. We're working on that.”

If history is any judge, this weekend’s race at Talladega is unlike to help him bust out of his slump.

In eight career starts at the 2.66-mile facility, Newman best finishes have been a pair of 4th-place showings offset with three DNF’s, with an average finish of 20.3.

Also stacking the odd against Newman is the fact that a Dodge hasn’t won at Talladega since 1976

“You've got a bunch of Chevrolets and a couple of drivers who obviously know what they're doing at those racetracks,” said Newman. “I think it has a lot to do with the car and what car they're taking to the racetrack - not necessarily manufacturer-wise, but the bottom line is it takes a better car than driver to win those races

"We've got to the end of races, which is huge for anybody in some of those situations, and our performance has been a lot better. It seems like we've been better at the Martinsvilles, Bristols and Phoenix than we have at the mile and a half and two-mile tracks, but that's part of our development and working this year with our cars.”

The author can be contacted petem@autoracing1.com

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