RYAN NEWMAN Rocketing Toward a New Beginning (Again) at Bristol KANNAPOLIS, N.C. (March 16, 2010) -- Bristol (Tenn.) Motor Speedway is where it all began for Ryan Newman. It's where this story begins, at least. As the reigning NASCAR Sprint...
Rocketing Toward a New Beginning (Again) at Bristol
KANNAPOLIS, N.C. (March 16, 2010) -- Bristol (Tenn.) Motor Speedway is where it all began for Ryan Newman. It's where this story begins, at least.
As the reigning NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Raybestos Rookie of the Year, Newman entered the 2003 spring race at Bristol -- his third start at the .533-mile bullring -- heralded as one of the sport's young phenoms.
The previous season, he had become only the second rookie in history to win the All-Star Race at Charlotte (N.C.) Motor Speedway. In just 49 Cup starts, Newman had racked up eight poles and one race win at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in Loudon.
That afternoon, on Bristol's concrete oval, Newman backed up all the hype. In time trials at the Tennessee short track that afternoon, Newman shattered the lap record as he flew around the oval at a speed of 128.709 mph, circling the short track in just 14.908 seconds.
Newman, who admittedly stunned himself with such a quick lap, became the first driver ever to break the 15-second mark at Bristol. No other driver has eclipsed that mark to date.
It was during his super-fast lap that Newman was anointed with the nickname "Rocketman," thanks to the television broadcasters who were announcing qualifying that day.
Newman's track record has held since 2003, and he's still known as "Rocketman."
But, for Newman, there's much more to Bristol than a fast lap and a nickname. In fact, Bristol was yet again the beginning of a story last season -- this time for Newman and his Stewart-Haas Racing (SHR) team.
After struggling through the first four races of their first season together, Newman & Company entered Bristol teetering on the edge. The team was 32nd in owner points and in danger of falling out of the top-35.
Despite the inherent dangers of Bristol and short-track racing -- having nowhere to go when someone wrecks in front of you -- the No. 39 Haas Automation team showed no fear.
Instead, it marched into Bristol, took the outside front-row starting spot, led 25 laps and finished seventh. It was the first top-10 of the season for Newman and his No. 39 team. The finish marked the beginning of a run that saw Newman record seven top-10 finishes in the next 10 races and move from 27th to fourth in the championship point standings.
The momentum and confidence the team gained from a solid run at Bristol served as a springboard for Newman and his team as they catapulted upward in the standings, earned a berth in the Chase for the Sprint Cup Championship and eventually finished ninth in points in their first season together.
As Newman and the No. 39 Haas Automation team prime themselves for another run at Bristol this weekend, they hope this 500-lap race will again serve as the beginning of a story they will want to tell again and again.
RYAN NEWMAN, Driver of the No. 39 Haas Automation Chevrolet Impala for Stewart-Haas Racing
For you and the No. 39 Haas Automation team, Bristol was kind of a turning point in the season last year. Not only did you get your first top-10 finish there in the spring, but you followed it up with a sixth-place finish in the fall. What is it about racing at Bristol for you and this team?
"I don't know if it was Bristol or if it was just short tracks, in general, for the No. 39 team last year, but that was where we really seemed to excel. We had a really good short-track program from the get-go, and when we finished seventh at Bristol last March, I think that gave us some momentum that we really needed. I really like Bristol, and I always have. Then, you add the fact that Bristol is one of Tony Gibson's favorite racetracks, and I think you saw that my driving style and the package Gibson put underneath me really worked well for us.
"There's 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. I think that's also one of the reasons emotions run so high at Bristol. You have to really be on your toes at Bristol and that seems to be where frustrations can rise and flame up quicker than at any other racetrack.
"For me, I'm glad to be heading back to Bristol this weekend. Last year, when we went to Bristol in March, it was our first time together there as a team. With the notes we have now from a year ago, I'm even more excited to be going back. We've seen improvements in our racecars and in our race packages each race this year, although our results don't reflect that. So, I'm looking forward to seeing how we have improved our already good short-track program."
Talk about racing at Bristol Motor Speedway. How has the track evolved as your racing style has over time?
"Everyone will tell you that Bristol has always been a game of survival. 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 that 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.
"I think the racing and the track are definitely better the way they are now. It was fun before, don't get me wrong. It was really fun to hustle the car around there. Running that 14.90 back in 2003 was a blast. To me, the racing is better because it's double-file. I've seen it and have been a part of three-wide racing there for the lead with the Nationwide Series a couple of years ago, when it was freshly done. I think it's more a combination of the tire and the track than it is the age of the concrete. Concrete doesn't change very much, if at all, over time. It's more the combination of tire and the racing we can do with that tire.
"As the cars have changed, we changed the way we drove the racetrack a little bit. As the racetrack changed, we had to readjust again. But to me, the racing is at an all-time high at Bristol compared to the way it used to be. It used to be that you kind of had to root somebody out of the way and the fans really liked that. But, from a driver's standpoint, it's not the best way to race. You don't want to be looking in your rear-view mirror instead of looking out your front windshield trying to worry about avoiding a crash. We can race side-by-side and actually gain spots without having to wreck someone. And the fans will still get an exciting race -- it's Bristol. So, I'm looking forward to going there. When we first went there when they reconstructed it, it was the best that it had ever been. We raced three-wide for the lead at different times. Adding the double-file restarts to the mix last year added even more excitement."
TONY GIBSON, Crew Chief of the No. 39 Haas Automation Chevrolet Impala for Stewart-Haas Racing
So far this year, the No. 39 has had a fairly similar beginning to the rocky start it endured last year. The good thing about that is, last season, the trip to Bristol Motor Speedway was really a turning point for this team. What kind of motivation does that give the No. 39 Haas Automation team leading into this weekend's race?
"It's been like page-for-page what happened to us last year. Right now, we're better off in the points than what we were last year after Atlanta. I have to be honest and tell you that the points situation doesn't bother me. We can climb right up through there. We proved that last year. The important thing is that these tracks coming up these next few weeks are our gravy tracks. This is where we make our money. We've got to capitalize on these next few races -- Bristol, Martinsville, Phoenix. Everything coming up here soon is good for us, and Ryan knows that and this team know that, so I think we are looking for some good results and really hoping to build momentum for the rest of the year. Hopefully, we can just stay out of trouble, and we can repeat what we did last year and we'll climb right back up in this deal and be good.
"For me, this has been a lot like last season. But the difference is we have a year under our belts. Daytona wasn't quite as bad this year as it was last year, but we ended up with the same results in the end. We blew up at California. We go to (Las) Vegas and we have the pit stop problems and, both years in Atlanta, we have had a great car but something happened. This year, we had a blown right-front tire and then a cut left-front tire. We lost three laps, made all three laps up and came back to finish 17th. To me, it's just like last year. It started out just like last year. One good thing about it is the team has been through this. We have notes on each track we've been to, and I think we have shown that our cars are better even if we don't have the results to prove it just yet. We've had really good racecars. We unload really fast and qualify great. We think we're in good shape for the race, and the race starts and, sometimes, we hit it and sometimes we don't. It's kind of a weird deal. Eventually, we'll get a handle on it. We don't give up. We work just as hard every week. The guys aren't down. They are pumped up. They know we have some races coming up that are strong for us, so I think they are pretty excited, also."
Last year, the No. 39 team finished seventh and sixth at Bristol Motor Speedway, respectively. Short tracks were really this team's forte. Why do you think that was the case, and what is it about Bristol?
"I love those tracks. Bristol is probably my best track. Everybody I have been with over the years, from Alan Kulwicki up until now, we've done well. I've won a ton of races there. I've been really successful there. It's my favorite track. I've had a lot of success, and the biggest thing -- probably traumatic -- that's happened to me was the year Alan got killed and we all showed up. That was kind of a shaky thing, but we have always won races there and have been really competitive. Ryan loves the short tracks. He likes Bristol, Martinsville, Darlington, Richmond, Phoenix-type of racetracks, and those are tracks I like better. I don't know why. I like racing everywhere but, for some reason for me, my setups seem to work better at those tracks. They fit Ryan, and they fit whoever I've been with. It just fits both our styles a little bit better than maybe the mile-and-a-half stuff. I know our mile-and-a-half program has been better this year. I know we don't have the finishes to prove it, but they have been stronger and we feel a little more confident about it. If we can make gains on our short-track program, like we did on our mile-and-a-half program this year, we will be pretty stout."
You mention Alan Kulwicki a lot when you talk about Bristol. You were Kulwicki's car chief, and you worked with him from 1986 until he died in a plane crash in 2003. Are there a lot of special memories that get stirred up when you go to Bristol? Would a win at Bristol be more special to you because of that connection to Alan Kulwicki?
"Every time I walk into the track at Bristol, I think of Alan. We had so much success there. With him getting killed going to Bristol, it was pretty tough to take. We were supposed to have been on that plane. Our luggage was on the plane. We were running late, and we ended up driving up and he went on to his appearance. Things just didn't work out or we would have been on that plane, too.
"So, yes, every time I fly into Bristol and, every time I walk into the track, I think of Alan and I think about the times we had. We won the last race there when it was pavement (1992) -- we won two in a row and I think the last one that we won was the last race with asphalt. There are a lot of memories there, a lot of good times and, of course, there's the one bad time. Every time I walk into Bristol, I feel like Alan is on my side and he's helping me make decisions and do some cool stuff, so it means a lot for me to go to Bristol.
"It would mean a lot for me personally, but for the team, too. We felt like there were four times last year that we should have won the race and we didn't. It's a new year and we've got chances to do that. It's exciting every time we roll into a short track."