Ryan Newman never appeared to make a grab for the celebrity ring, to try to be one of the personalities who get noticed in NASCAR. Instead, he has always seemed to have that ability to focus on his week-to-week effort, to be confident in what he knows is possible instead of being caught up in what others say.
So it is perhaps easier for him to spend a comeback season laboring somewhat outside of the spotlight that is shining so brightly on new teammate and new team owner Tony Stewart. After all, they are part of a close-knit group that has stunned many in NASCAR circles, a surprising tandem that truly operates under that “all-for-one” philosophy often spoken of but rarely embraced.
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In doing so, the duo has defied tradition and expectations this season. Stewart took half ownership of what was a struggling — and that is perhaps understating the obvious — Haas CNC Racing team and has helped turn it into a championship-contending organization. Stewart has been stellar all season, taking the points lead seven races ago and has stretched his margin.
Perhaps the success all goes back to those relationships in the team — and their intense focus on what they are doing and seeming complete disregard for what others say they can or can’t achieve.
The two-car teams really do seem to operate as one, truly seem to relish one another’s success and bear setbacks together. No matter how each team is viewed, those within the organization see both as equals.
“We’re one team here,” says Tony Gibson, Newman’s crew chief. “When (Stewart’s team wins), we celebrate. I think we’ve had five or six races where we both finished in the top five, and there’s no two prouder teams when the race is over to have two teams in the top five.”
So far, that unity has borne fruit, putting both in contention to battle for the championship when the Chase for the Sprint Cup begins seven races down the road.
It’s clear there’s a lot of mutual admiration in the ranks. While they endured vastly different fortunes in the opening races of the season, both appear more on track at this point. Stewart raced to the top of the standings, while Newman was a little slower out of the gate.
Then Newman and Gibson put together a stellar stretch of 10 races in which they had only two finishes outside the top 10 and a worst of 16th. They then endured another problematic four-race run in which they enjoyed a top finish of 17th but moved back to sixth in the most recent race to remain seventh in the standings.
Now, both teams are in position to challenge for the championship.
“I think both of our teams get along extremely well,” Gibson says. “They work together really good in the shop, at the racetrack. Everybody seems to be pulling in the same direction, and both teams have the same goal in mind, and we cheer for one another, and we pick one another up when we’re not doing good, and we have celebrated with each other when we have a good day, and I think that’s part of the huge success of the company.”
For his part, Newman has bonded well with his team and with Stewart. And he has returned to the kind of performance he enjoyed earlier in his career with Penske Racing.
Newman bested Hendrick Motorsports’ Jimmie Johnson for the 2002 Cup Rookie of the Year. He collected his first victory in that debut season and then eight the next year. Since then, however, he has won only four times. He has competed in the Chase twice.
Newman opted to part ways with Penske Racing, the only team he’d driven for in Cup, at the end of last season to join the Stewart-Haas group.
And then he seemed to catch fire once more. While Newman continues to seek his first win of the season, he has found plenty to be pleased with in the opening 19 races this season.
“I think we’ve been good,” he says. “I don’t think we’ve been great. We had a great string, but on average, we’ve been pretty good. We’ve had a lot of fun, that’s for sure. Obviously, Tony has a lot fewer complaints than we do. But in general, it has just been a lot of fun, a chemistry-building and team morale-building experience.
“I look forward to going back to some of these tracks twice with these guys and these race cars to try and get that first victory for our team.”
Having it come at Indianapolis Motor Speedway this weekend, the home-state track of the South Bend, Ind., native, would be extra special for Newman. He remembers sneaking into the track to talk to stock-car drivers when they started racing there. Now, he has a good shot at contending for the win there.
That would be just the latest step in the team’s growth.
Newman recognizes that things haven’t been perfect and sees room for improvement if the group is to contend for the title.
“It has been good,” he says. “We have had our weaknesses. We have struggled a little bit in the pits. We have struggled a little bit communication-wise, just making the car better at different times in the weekend. Everybody struggles with that. I think our organization has done a very good job giving us very good equipment from a car standpoint.
“Nuts and bolts are tight; I don’t have to worry about the mechanical part of it. Sometimes that is a total distraction, and it can change your entire weekend. I think in general the organization has done an A for effort. Obviously, Tony’s team has got that A-plus. I would still say we are at a B. We have been a B-plus to an A and we have been a C-plus to a B-minus at times.”
Stewart, meanwhile, lauds the effort of Newman and his group, especially their cohesiveness as they worked to overcome the early setbacks.
“Ryan has done a great job coming in and working with the new group of people, and I look at Ryan’s season up to date and I look at mine, and I’ve had the easy side of it,” Stewart says. “Ryan has absolutely been like a warrior through every weekend. He has battled through adversity at every race, and that really makes me proud, not only of him as a teammate and a driver but also of his crew on the U.S. Army car and how they’re able to overcome each weekend.
“They’ve been able to do things, I think, battling adversity during the races that I think a lot of teams can’t do and get the result and the outcome that they’ve had.”
Part of the reason for that, too, may be the pair’s ability to work well together. They complement one another. They enjoy talking about things other than racing, revel in those moments away from the track when they are fishing or occupied by something other than race cars and strategies and talk about the Chase.
They’ve found common ground beyond the sport, as have their crews. And that could help them become the latest multicar operation to have two teams in title contention.
“It’s a people business,” Newman says. “People make the big difference in everything that we do. They build the race cars, they work together to do pit stops and everything else. Our friendship is definitely important. … Our friendship off the race track to me weighs sometimes more than our friendship on the race track.
“We have to compete against each other, which we try to do our best at to make sure we don’t penalize each other for the way we race each other, but the bottom line is just getting along off the race track. It’s huge for me, just gives us something else to talk about besides a right-front spring or a sway bar.”
Rea White is a writer for NASCAR Scene, which is published weekly, 46 weeks per year. Visit www.scenedaily.com for more information.