When Ryan Newman arrived for last year’s Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, he had just learned he would not retain his ride at Stewart-Haas Racing for the 2014 season.
Needless to say, it was not the best of times in Newman’s world.
But when the dust settled that Sunday evening, the native of South Bend, Ind., was hoisting the trophy and celebrating an emotional first win at the track where his ties run deeper than any other.
This weekend, Newman finds himself in a considerably more stable position — in the first year of a three-year deal with Richard Childress Racing.
He’d like nothing more, however, than to end up in the exact same place — Victory Lane — where he would join Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart as drivers with Indiana ties who own multiple victories on the fabled 2.5-mile hardtop.
"It was definitely a sweet and bittersweet victory for us last year after going through being released or, you know, in the future going to be released from Stewart Haas and coming back and having a little off-weekend time, which didn’t go the greatest obviously," Newman said on Friday at IMS. "But in the end we came back and capitalized on a good race with the Quicken Loans Chevrolet at the time. It was really special. And after winning Daytona (the 2008 Daytona 500) and then coming here and winning this race — the two races that I know of that you become a champion when you win — it kind of hit me when I kissed that yard of bricks."
From a momentum standpoint, Newman appears to have a better chance than last year of kissing Indy’s famous Yard of Bricks located at the start/finish line.
No longer a lame-duck driver and now with a team that seems to be just hitting its stride, Newman has every reason to be optimistic about Sunday.
While Newman has yet to win in 19 starts with his No. 31 RCR team, his results have steadily improved. He now sits seventh in points — his highest standing of the entire year — and has scored top-five finishes in two of the last three outings.
The first of those top fives — a third-place finish at Kentucky Speedway — is Newman’s best finish of the season.
Perhaps the most comforting news of all is that even if Newman doesn’t find his way to Victory Lane in the seven remaining races before the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup, he is likely to land a spot among the 16-driver championship field based on his strong points position.
All of this adds up to an extremely confident driver, who also obviously is happy to be back racing in his home state.
"We’ve got some better finishes under our belt the last three or four races," said Newman, who was 12th in Friday’s lone Sprint Cup Series practice at Indianapolis. "Two top-fives were something we needed to get. Like I said, we’ve got to put ourselves in contention to win, which means being in the top five, not the top 10. Competition is tough. So we’ve progressed as a team. I don’t think we’re as good as we ultimately can be. I hope we’re saving that for the Chase, but collectively the guys are doing a really good job. You know, just pure maintenance-wise and every part of the race car is doing what it’s supposed to.
"We’ve been competitive everywhere. We just haven’t been a winning race car everywhere. Come Chase time, we’re going to have to be."
Even if Newman doesn’t go back-to-back at the Brickyard, he won’t leave empty-handed this weekend. On Friday, IMS president Doug Boles joined Herff Jones representative Ken Keltner in presenting Newman with the 2013 Brickyard champion’s ring.
"Any chance this ring has any kind of key to it to be able to get in the gate to fish the ponds over there?" Newman, an avid outdoorsman, jokingly asked in reference to the three lakes located in the IMS infield.
"Absolutely. (It will) get you anywhere you want to go," Keltner said.
Maybe even back to Victory Lane.
VIDEO: Ryan Newman discusses his recent third-place finish at Kentucky Speedway.