Brant James
Wednesday June 18th, 2008

Ryan Newman stood, hands in jean pockets, at the base of the graveled slope to a Space Shuttle launching pad at Kennedy Space Center on Tuesday, pursing his lips as he considered the framed green flag he was accepting as part of a Daytona International Speedway presentation.

This banner had traveled 17,500 mph during a February mission, he was informed.

"Hauling ass," he grinned, nodding.

Newman was impressed, jealous. His ninth NASCAR Sprint Cup season seemingly had the same momentum when he won the season-opening Daytona 500, but he's subsequently adrift in space. Seventeenth in driver points after 15 races, he's not only unsure of his season, but his future with Penske Racing. Unless the problems that he considers the undoing of his season are addressed, he said, he will not return when his contract expires in November.

"It's a performance issue. There's no excuse," said the 30-year-old Newman, who has 13 Cup wins, eight in 2003 when he finished sixth in points, his twice-equaled personal best. "The other guys aren't doing it. We shouldn't either. We strive to be the best at everything, and we're failing at that."

Newman's third mechanical failure of the season -- the second in a race -- relegated him to a 42nd-place finish at Michigan last week and marked a "step in a bad direction" in his consideration of Penske, he said.

"It has an impact, heck yeah," he said. "Without a doubt. My goal is to be the best driver I can be and get the best results, wherever that is, whether it's Penske Racing or any other place. I have to be fair to myself and my long-term goals and everything else, and Roger knows that. We've talked about that. It's no secret."

Newman has been critical of Penske's engine program all season, but team president Tim Cindric said no one area is completely culpable, and a post-race breakdown of the No. 12 Dodge on Tuesday revealed a drive line issue as the Michigan culprit.

Newman referenced Kevin Harvick's 59-race streak without a DNF in underscoring the problems he's had in just 15 events, an ominous thought considering Richard Childress Racing will field a fourth Cup car next season.

Though he said he has contingencies, Newman, who has set a deadline with Penske to revisit his latest contract offer, claims he is not negotiating with other teams. That's assuming the topic didn't come up before the season, when he and Childress hunted together.

"I told Roger I am not in a position to fulfill that (offer) yet, depending on our performance. The performance of our team and his organization will make or break my position," Newman said. "He understands. He understands the ball is in my court and why I have that feeling or mood or idea, it's because of our lack of performance."

Improvements are being made in the stock car program, Cindric said, and the team hopes to re-sign Newman if he wants to return, but added, "We're going to get where we're going. Some days the timelines don't match up."

"Things are being put in place," Cindric said. "The question is, are we going to see results quick enough to keep all parties satisfied? I don't know."

Penske Racing has 300 victories, but its stock car program -- which debuted in 1972 -- has attained neither the level of consistency nor excellence of its open wheel cousin, which has amassed 135 of the wins and all 12 national championships. Though the team appears finally to be finding stability in a much-needed third Cup program with three-time Indy Racing League champion Sam Hornish Jr., as driver, but Newman said Penske is "not as manned as other organizations are when it comes to having three teams."

Although drivers rarely leave Penske voluntarily, the team is also making its own contingencies, Cindric said. Those have not, he said, involved discussing a contract with Tony Stewart, the two-time Sprint Cup champion who may try to leave Joe Gibbs Racing before his contract expires in '09.

"We certainly have to consider what else there might be there if Ryan decides not be here," Cindric said. "Obviously, we've had a long run with him and we'd like to continue to build on that, but if it doesn't work out that way, everybody is going to do what they think is right.

"He's going to be believe in whatever opportunity best serves him and we have to do the same, so its really just business."

Newman's frustration about this season seems heightened by, not in spite of, its start. He exploited his late-race position in the lead pack of the Daytona 500 to slide in front of hard-charging teammate Kurt Busch and ride his draft push to the front for his first victory since '05. Busch finished second. But momentum didn't carry far off the high banks of Daytona International Speedway.

"We did have momentum. [The Daytona 500 win] gave us momentum," he said. "I think momentum has worn off since and it's been due to the fact we've not been able to repeat the performance."

Newman started last at Bristol after changing engines and raced into the top 10 before being involved in a crash and finishing in 33rd. The pole sitter had an engine fail after he ran in the top 10 at Phoenix, and finished last. A potential top-5 run at Atlanta eroded into a 14th-place finish after a bump with Juan Pablo Montoya pushed in a fender. But the overarching thread, he said, has been engine issues. There have been five top-10s, but four finishes of 33rd or worse.

"I feel like we're lacking in engines," he said. "I've said openly."

Stewart could complicate Newman's potential job search team or provide help to set his "street value," Newman said.

"Am I worth this much to somebody down the street or this much to someone for staying at this address?" he pondered. Newman said longtime mentor Don Miller's replacement by Cindric is not a factor in his decision-making, however.

"I want to be in the best position I can be in to win a championship," he said. "I don't know if that requires me to stay or not.''

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