It seems like an eternity since Ryan Newman had his dazzling eight-win season in 2003, his second season in Sprint Cup. Surely, many believed, he was NASCAR's next superstar, an Indiana driver like Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart who followed the same short-track, open-wheel path to the major leagues of stock car racing.
The seven seasons that followed have been productive in terms of points, and Newman has remained in the upper echelon of Cup drivers. He's made the Chase in three of those seven seasons, and his victory in the Daytona 500 in 2008 temporarily brought him back into the spotlight. But he won only six races from 2004 through 2010. His top-fives, a telltale statistic in evaluating competitiveness, also diminished. Newman had four last year, five in 2009 (a Chase season) and two in 2008.
Newman has turned around the ship this season. His fifth at Pocono last Sunday was his seventh top-five of the season, equaling the most he's had since 2007. Newman has a win and fourth-, fifth- and 12th-place finishes over the past four races. He's shown strength consistently and is building momentum in the stretch run to the Chase with five regular season races remaining.
Newman never completely fell off, but he appears to be staging a comeback to a higher level where wins and top-fives are achieved with greater frequency.
"I hope so," Newman said. "We've got a good start on that. We need to capitalize better on turning top-fives into victories. I'm proud of where the team is at, but I know we've got a lot more races to go."
Newman is eighth in the points, 40 points in front of 11th-place Denny Hamlin. He's also 16 points in front of Stewart-Haas Racing teammate Tony Stewart and 17 in front of Dale Earnhardt Jr. going into Sunday's road course race at Watkins Glen. Newman appears to be Chase-bound for the second time in three seasons with Stewart-Haas.
"We don't take anything for granted," Newman said. "This is auto racing and things can turn against you pretty quickly. You can easily stumble while another driver or two gets on a hot streak. Until someone tells me we have mathematically clinched a Chase berth, I won't feel secure."
Newman was 15th in the points last season. His first win for Stewart-Haas, at Phoenix, and 14 top-10s made it a little less painful, but missing the Chase hurt. Newman doesn't ever want to be an also-ran.
His No. 39 Chevrolet, with engines and chassis supplied from technical partner Hendrick Motorsports, returned this season along with crew chief Tony Gibson. So if no changes were made, what made Newman and the No. 39 better?
"Multiple reasons," Newman explained. "The cars are better. ... Our communication within the team has been better. That's probably the biggest part of it. We're on the same page and it's stronger than it's ever been."
Stewart-Haas did make a major organizational change in early June when vice president of competition Bobby Hutchens was released and technical director Matt Borland replaced him on an interim basis. It altered the structure of how Newman's group operates.
"I think Matt Borland made an impact by putting a little more emphasis on us doing things ourselves," Newman said. "It's the go to the refrigerator type of thing; you go to get a drink yourself instead of expecting someone to bring it to you. Matt is the interim [vice president] and he's been given the [overall] responsibility and it's how the whole situation worked out.
"Having Matt involved is definitely a good thing. Matt is the smartest guy I've ever met inside the garage from a technology standpoint. Matt is a go-getter. If he doesn't know the answer, he'll come back with three choices and you can pick the best one."
The restructuring before the first race at Pocono essentially made it Newman and Gibson calling the shots, with support from Borland. They've had five top-10s in the eight races since.
Newman finished outside of the top 20 at Infineon and Daytona before finishing fourth at Kentucky and winning at New Hampshire.
"We had a good car at Kentucky," Newman said. "We've had some races get away, but just having the confidence [going to New Hampshire] sure didn't hurt."
Newman started on the pole at New Hampshire, the 47th of his career. Teammate Stewart finished second. It was satisfying to Newman on many fronts.
"The one-two finish was huge ... really amazing," Newman said. "It was huge for us as a team to get Army in Victory Lane. But then to have Tony there as the [second-place finisher] on top of that, to do it after qualifying the way we did, dominating, leading the most laps -- we get criticized for being good qualifiers and not good racers, but it all happened."
Newman drove from 11th on the restart to fifth in the final 16 laps at Pocono the second time around.
"We came out 11th and then [Ryan] Newman just did his normal deal," Gibson said. "Man, he got after it and drove right up there to a top-five finish."
Newman says getting top-fives is a matter of "good race car, right strategy, the right calls by Tony Gibson and good pit stops.
"That's what it takes to get into the top five," Newman said, "and then you win by doing it better than the other four."
Newman, 33 and in his prime for a Cup driver, is likely headed for his best overall season since 2004, when he was seventh in the points, or even 2003, when he was sixth with those eight wins. Newman could be a contender in the Chase, which is wide open. It's not out of his reach with how the No. 39 is performing.