In two full seasons on the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup circuit, Ryan Newman has been a quick learner. He blends the steely nerve of a jet fighter pilot with the calculating thought process of a physics professor into a devastating combination that has...
In two full seasons on the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup circuit, Ryan Newman has been a quick learner. He blends the steely nerve of a jet fighter pilot with the calculating thought process of a physics professor into a devastating combination that has racked up 17 poles and nine wins since 2002.
After finishing second to Matt Kenseth in the All-Star race last Saturday, Newman is looking forward to going back to Charlotte to take care of some unfinished business in the Coca-Cola 600 (Sunday at 7:00 p.m. Eastern on FOX).
"We're looking for one spot better in the 600," said Newman, who led 49 laps in the all-star race but couldn't hold off Kenseth, who had fresher tires and took the lead with four laps left in the race. "We had track position, which was good as far as aerodynamics, but when the tires aren't as sticky or as good both from the air pressure standpoint and from grip standpoint, it makes it a little harder."
The Coca-Cola 600 is the longest event of the season. The 400-lap marathon around the 1.5 mile tri-oval is mentally and physically taxing on the driver, crew chief and the over-the-wall team. A mistake in the set-up or on the track can make for a long night of playing catch-up.
"You'll have one or two long green-flag runs and you've got to have a car that handles well for the entire run or you can go a lap down pretty quick," said Matt Borland, crew chief for the #12 ALLTEL Dodge. "The other big piece of it is just the durability of pieces - engine, transmission - has to be able to handle a 600-mile race plus all the practice you put on it that week."
Newman swept the poles in the two points events at Lowe's last year, finishing fifth in the spring race and second behind Tony Stewart in October.
After short-pitting near the end of the 500-mile race because of a vibration, Newman inherited the lead when the rest of the leaders made their final stops. Stewart took advantage of his fresher tires to close an eight-second gap in the final 36 laps for the win.
"Typically the more heat cycles that get on them, the harder they get and the less they stick," Newman explained about the tire drop-off at Lowe's. "You lose a tenth of a second a lap. You've got a guy behind you that's basically getting faster for a few laps because he's got fresher tires. It gets on top of the race track and starts sliding around and it does that because you're trying to go too fast."
Newman has developed an almost instinctive relationship with Borland on and off the track. They have several things in common, including university engineering degrees, and have worked together at Penske Racing since 2000. Borland says that communication between the driver and crew chief about how the car is reacting to the changing track conditions is critical to success in the Coca-Cola 600.
Sunday is a highlight on the calendar for Roger Penske's racing team. In addition to three NEXTEL Cup cars entered in the Coca-Cola 600, Penske will also field the Indy Racing League cars of Helio Castroneves and Sam Hornish Jr. in the Indianapolis 500 earlier in the day. Penske has won 14 International racing championships, including nine in CART, but he is looking for his first as a NASCAR owner.
Newman was tabbed as a pre-season favorite to win the NEXTEL Cup Championship after winning a series-high eight races in 2003. He has four top-5 finishes this season and is sixth in the championship points chase. The team was 27th in the standings heading to Charlotte one year ago.
"Right now I wouldn't say it's better or worse because nothing really has changed until you get into that final 10," admitted Borland. "We only had one win at this point (last year). The wins come in streaks, but to be finishing as many races as we are now and running a lot more consistently than we did last year, it feels a lot better."