Tom Bowles
Thursday April 30th, 2009

Looking back at Talladega, it's easy to get lost in the haze of Carl Edwards' flip and its aftermath. But there's a key player in this whole mess who endured a five-second nightmare as well.

"When I saw Carl flying up in front of me, I thought he was actually going to spin down to the bottom," said Ryan Newman, whose car was the final stop before the No. 99 slammed into the catch fence. "[But] the back of the car caught air.

"I saw the left rear tire coming right toward my windshield. So, yeah, it was bad. The bar in the center of the car is called the Earnhardt Bar for a reason -- we've had cars close to coming through there before. Luckily, that Earnhardt Bar stood up for me."

Two seconds passed, and the No. 99 car was off the No. 39 and on its way to the flip of a lifetime. But Newman was far from in the clear -- with his hood flipped up and the front of his car smashed, he had every reason to stop steering.

But he didn't.

"I kept my foot [on the gas]," said Newman. "I knew I was going to bounce off the wall and still finish third."

So, while Edwards was running Ricky Bobby-style to the line, Newman actually brought his car across it, registering his first top-5 finish of the year for Stewart-Haas Racing. It was the latest bounce of good fortune that's been part of an impressive turnaround in recent weeks. While car owner/teammate Tony Stewart's been a contender from the drop of the green in 2009, Newman once appeared to be getting the short end of the stick.

Destroying not one but two cars at Daytona, Newman's team looked like the Bad News Bears in an ugly pit stop during the race. Slumping to 36th, things only got worse from there. Four races in, Stewart was basking in the glory of three top-10 finishes, while Newman had yet to score a top 20.

"We took a few licks early," admitted Newman of the early-season slump that made you wonder if he questioned leaving Penske Racing, the only team he'd ever known since entering the Cup Series in 2001. "But we never got down."

That patience -- unexpected from a team owned by a man known to fly off the handle -- proved well worth it. A 7th at Bristol was the stabilizing factor the team needed to turn things around, and since then they've scored an average finish of 9.4 to surge from 32nd to 13th in points. The pinnacle of their performance came at Talladega, where Newman was pushed to the front by Denny Hamlin on Lap 176, and remained in contention until being passed by the two-car freight train of Brad Keselowski and Carl Edwards on the final lap.

"I was put in the right position by the right situations," Newman said. "[Junior] stuck to his word and pushed me all the way around [to the final lap in the lead]. I just didn't expect the 09 and 99 to get hooked up and go as quick as they did."

Nobody expected this program to be in position to win this early, either -- especially considering both Newman and Tony Stewart's cars combined for zero top-5 finishes last season. Now, they have four in just nine races -- a credit to how well the two Indiana drivers have gelled in turning around the program.

"Having Ryan Newman as a teammate is a huge asset," Stewart said. "We've worked well together from day one. His depth of knowledge of the car and why things do what they do has been a huge asset to me. It's been a huge asset to the whole organization."

A lot of the credit for that goes to Newman's engineering background; He's one of the few drivers to hold an undergraduate degree (Newman was an engineering major at Purdue). While much of the credit for SHR's early success has gone to Stewart hires Darien Grubb and Bobby Hutchens -- and deservedly so -- there's actually an old mainstay of Newman's who's worked wonders behind the scenes.

Former crew chief Matt Borland now runs the engineering department responsible for development of their CoTs. Together, Newman and Borland combined to win 11 races and 27 poles from 2002 to '04 at Penske Racing. Once the two parted ways, Newman's Penske Racing team was never the same. And while Tony Gibson calls the shots for Newman on race day, he trusts Borland's ability to make the right changes back at the shop. Turns out, two super-smart engineering geeks can give you extra speed in this era of aerodynamic perfection.

"Consistency has always been the key to success," Newman admits of his recent revival. "We just need to keep doing what we've been doing."

And that includes doing whatever it takes to cross the finish line.

Author's Note: I want to join in the NASCAR community in expressing my condolences to the family of David Poole. As I wrote yesterday, Poole was a man who commanded respect in the media center, without question a man at the top of his profession. He will be sorely missed.

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