HAMPTON, GA - Twenty-one years ago, Roger Penske took a chance on an unknown driver, running him in the spring race at Atlanta Motor Speedway. That unknown driver started seventh and finished second, completing every lap. That unknown driver was Rusty Wallace.
More than two decades later, Wallace is a NASCAR Winston Cup champion, Penske a revered car owner, and another unknown driver could again be turning heads in Atlanta.
Ryan Newman, 23, will make his Atlanta debut in the March 10 Aaron's 312 Busch Series race as part of a 22-race blended schedule of ARCA, Winston Cup and Busch events. Newman has been on the Atlanta track just once, during a January test when he unofficially turned a lap faster than the existing track Busch Series qualifying record.
"He's amazing; he's 23 years old, and he goes out and runs like he's been here 10, 15 years," said Buddy Baker, who served as a driver coach during Newman's test. "I'd call him a seasoned veteran, and he has 29 laps so far in Atlanta."
Of course, Newman is no stranger to fast laps. Last fall, he shattered the track record at Lowe's Motor Speedway, a track very similar to Atlanta, by turning a lap at 186.780 mph (28.911 seconds). His lap eclipsed the NASCAR Winston Cup track record of 186.034 mph set last May by Dale Earnhardt, Jr. and destroyed the ARCA track record of 182.340 mph set earlier in the year by Tim Steele.
"That was a lot of circumstances that came together and just happened to work," Newman said, looking back. "I never thought in my life that we would go as fast as we did. In fact, we had run a 29.3 (seconds), and my crew chief came over the radio and said we ran a .91. I told him no way we ran a 29.91. He said, 'No, a 28.91. Great lap.' I told him to check his watch; I couldn't believe it."
But the rest of his team could. For a driver who spent most of his life in open-wheel machines, Newman adapted quickly to the heavier, bulkier stock cars. In his first five career ARCA races last season, Newman had three wins and two pole positions.
Don Miller, a part-owner of the Newman and Wallace cars, said Newman's incredible ability can likely be traced, at least in part, to his mechanical knowledge and his gut instinct. Newman is just six credits shy of a vehicle structure engineering degree from Purdue University, where he has been attending classes while racing full-time for the last five years.
"He's incredible," Miller said at last month's test. "He can feel the slightest change in the car. Here's a great example: just a couple laps ago he pulls in and says the car has been dragging, like it's resisting the last 100 rpms. Well, we checked the telemetry and nothing was wrong. Then we checked the weather station on top of the hauler for the weather conditions at the time of his run. Can you believe that the wind had picked up three miles per hour in the backstretch? And he felt that."
With just his speed, or just his instinct, or just his intelligence, Newman would be a good driver. But with all three, his mentors say there is no telling how far this young man could go.
"Anybody who knows me knows I don't brag on people," Baker said. "You either have it or you don't. He has it. If he had faults, I would tell him. But I haven't found any yet."
Fans will have the chance to see this rising star in person at the March 10 Aaron's 312 Busch Series race, part of the Cracker Barrel Old Country Store 500 weekend. Great seats are still available for all three days of racing action. The weekend kicks off Friday with Georgia Power qualifying, then turns to the Busch Series on Saturday for the Aaron's 312. The weekend will culminate Sunday with the fourth Winston Cup race of the year, the Cracker Barrel Old Country Store 500. To order tickets, call the Atlanta Motor Speedway ticket office at (770) 946-4211.
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