Hoosier Hopes To Score Big at Tennessee Short Track
KANNAPOLIS, N.C. (March 14, 2011) – While the NCAA college basketball tournament is tipping off around the country this week, signaling the onset of “March Madness,” the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series is about to embark on its own version of “Madness” on Sunday – 500 miles of door-to-door action at the fast-paced, high-banked .533-mile bullring known as the Bristol (Tenn.) Motor Speedway.
Ryan Newman and the No. 39 Tornados Chevrolet of Stewart-Haas Racing (SHR) enter the madness of Bristol and this weekend’s Jeff Byrd 500 with a burst of momentum and in a much-higher points position than in previous seasons.
Currently ranked fifth in the Sprint Cup point standings, Newman and his team have been riding high since last year’s final stretch, during which the team posted finishes of 11th or better in nine of the season’s final 13 races.
And, it’s obvious the momentum from numerous strong finishes at the end of last season has carried over into 2011.
With three races in the books, Newman has posted two solid top-five finishes – fifth-place efforts at both Phoenix International Raceway and Las Vegas Motor Speedway. And he has led laps in two of the three races so far this season. In fact, Newman led the most laps (37) at Daytona (Fla.) International Speedway in the season-opening Daytona 500, which was a first for Newman and the No. 39 team at any race since they joined forces in 2009.
And while the No. 39 team can’t exactly claim a home-court advantage at Bristol, their record at the Tennessee short track speaks volumes. In the team’s four starts at Bristol, Newman has started on the outside pole once and has posted three top-10 finishes.
In fact, Bristol and the other short tracks on the Sprint Cup circuit have been the team’s strong suit over the past two seasons as Newman, crew chief Tony Gibson and the No. 39 Tornados team have posted solid performances on tracks under a mile in length. In 12 combined starts at Bristol, Martinsville (Va.) Speedway and Richmond (Va.) International Raceway, Newman has finished outside the top-10 just three times.
In 18 career starts at Bristol, Newman has two poles, a top-five finish and 10 top-10s. The South Bend, Ind., native also holds the qualifying record at the track – which he earned by turning a blistering-fast lap, clocking in at 128.709 mph (14.908 seconds) in 2003.
Just like the NCAA tournament is all about surviving and advancing to the next round for the 68 qualifying college basketball teams, the infamous Bristol racetrack is all about survival, especially if Newman & Company hopes to continue its stretch of top-five finishes, or even score its first win of the 2011 season.
In order to survive and advance at Bristol, it takes intense preparation and mental toughness, much the same as it does in a college basketball tournament. Gibson and the No. 39 Stewart-Haas Racing team will unload at the track known as “Thunder Valley” with the equipment and race strategy necessary to bring home the hardware.
As for Newman, he will draw on some of the skills he learned on the short tracks in his basketball-loving home state of Indiana. The combination has the potential to propel Newman and the team closer to the top of the leaderboard and serve notice to the competition that the Tornados driver is going to be a force to be reckoned with the entire NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season.
RYAN NEWMAN, Driver of the No. 39 Tornados Chevrolet Impala for Stewart-Haas Racing:
You are currently sitting fifth in points after three races, which is quite a difference from where you were last year and the year before. Talk about the start of your season, so far.
“It is my best three-race start to the season since my Daytona 500 victory in 2008. Honestly, even though we haven’t won a race, yet, this season, I think it’s even better than that because of how strong we have run each race and where we have finished. I’m just really proud of this team to get off to a start like this. I think we’ve done a good job so far of carrying a good run in the last 10 or 12 races of last season into the offseason and turning that into a good start to this season. That isn’t easy to do. Ultimately, it has been a lot of fun to start off this year. We led the most laps at Daytona, which was a great feat for us as a team. I think it was the first time for me at a restrictor-plate track and the first time for me at Stewart-Haas as far as leading the most laps. We had a good, solid top-five finish at Phoenix. That is three top-fives in a row at that track. Then, we fought back from some difficulties at Las Vegas and really worked together as a team to support each other and get another top-five finish. I’m just so proud of the effort the guys have put in during the offseason and all the sponsors for giving us the opportunity to come back and do what we love. I think it’s easy to see that we’re having a lot of fun right now.”
You are a big fan of Bristol. What is it about Bristol that you like so much?
“It’s just a great racetrack and a great short track. I’ve always liked the banked racetracks, in general, over the flatter racetracks. So, I guess in some ways you could say I’m more comfortable at Bristol. I think Bristol has always been one of those short tracks that everybody loves. And, obviously, that’s changed with the different surface and the way they have changed it a little bit. But, ultimately, it’s still a great short track. I really love the banking and I love the fact it’s concrete and doesn’t seem like it changes a whole lot. Once you get a car right, it’s typically right for 500 laps, which is difficult to get on some of the racetracks. Honestly, there’s just no place like Bristol. I’ve told people before that Bristol is like a baby superspeedway. If something happens in front of you, it may not be your fault, but you can get caught up in somebody else’s wreck in the blink of an eye. You have to really be on your toes at Bristol. Everything happens so fast there. You don’t have time to think or blink.
“I learned that in 2003, when I won the pole there. I knew I had a good car but I never anticipated I could put down a lap that fast. You just don’t realize how quickly everything happens at Bristol. You could have the best car out there, but everything is completely out of your hands. One minute, you could be running in the lead and, just seconds later, you could be wrecked in the corner and out of the race and it would be no fault of your own. You won’t even realize what has happened to you until afterward. To me, the racing is at an all-time high at Bristol, compared to the way it used to be. We can race side-by-side and actually gain spots without having to wreck someone.”
This year is the 50th anniversary of racing at Bristol Motor Speedway. What are some of your favorite memories of racing at Bristol?
“As a fan, watching (Dale) Earnhardt rattle cages was always interesting there. Even going back in history, watching cars smoke the right-rear all the way around when it was asphalt was cool. For me, personally, I’ve had some good memories there. I won a Nationwide race at the track. I guess running that 14.90 lap in qualifying back in 2003 was probably the most special moment for me in the Sprint Cup Series, personally. That was definitely a fast lap, and I would be lying if I told you I didn’t shock myself. And in the end, it’s how I ended up with my nickname (Rocketman). So that was pretty cool. But I think, for me personally, my most special memory racing at Bristol is probably last year’s win in the Modified car. I think everybody expected us to win that day, but it took some things to line up just right for us to get past. We went from, I think, fourth to first in a lap-and-a-half and held onto the victory over Mike Stefanik. It was a great race. A lot of what makes it special is just the way I raced that race – how smart I was trying to be, saving my tires and letting those guys race and pass each other in front. Then, when the time came, I made my move and it worked and I hung on for a victory that was still close to the last lap. That really was a special win for me. Running a car around there, 15:20s, 15:30s, for as many laps straight as we did, that’s pretty demanding as a driver and that makes it a little bit more gratifying, as well. I will always cherish that at Bristol.”