His future looked so promising back in the fall of 2003. A fresh-faced Ryan Newman, then in his second year on the Cup circuit, was on his way to winning a series-best eight races, a hard-to-believe 11 poles, and finishing sixth in the final standings. This came after he'd been named rookie of the year in '02 when he'd captured one checkered flag and was a weekly threat to lead laps and win races.
A decade later, Newman has never rekindled that magic of his sophomore season on the Cup circuit. Since 2004, he's only won seven races and in the last five years he's only sat on the pole seven times. He's never been a serious title contender in the Chase era -- he came in ninth in the final standings in 2009 -- and he's generally been a mid-pack driver with a career average finish of 16.6. A solid racer, yes, but not spectacular like he was back in 2004.
Except, that is, at one place: New Hampshire International Speedway, where the Cup series stops on Sunday.
Newman notched his first career win at Loudon in 2002 and he's reached Victory Lane a total of three times in 20 starts. Starting from the pole in this race last year, Newman sped away from the field, leading 119 of the 301 laps to take the checkered flag. It was Newman's only victory of the year, but it underscored how comfortable he feels racing on the flat, 1.085-mile track, where passing is extremely difficult, placing a premium on track position. At New Hampshire, it usually looks like Newman's tires stick to the asphalt better than any other driver, because the balance in the setup of his car is often near perfect. The easy way he roared around the track last summer was like seeing a golfer with the perfect, gentle swing who makes the game appear so simple.
But now Newman heads to New Hampshire with his season -- and his future -- teetering on the brink. Currently 15th in the standings and with one victory in 2012, Newman probably needs to win one more race to advance to the Chase as one of the two wild cards. This week his primary sponsor, the U.S. Army, announced it would be pulling out of NASCAR at season's end, leaving Newman without major financial backing for 2012. Plus, this is a contract year for the 34-year-old Purdue graduate (for the record, Newman is the only college grad competing in the Cup series), and there's been speculation in the garage that Newman could be heading to a new team in 2013 (perhaps Richard Childress Racing).
So the pressure is on Newman to deliver at one of his best tracks -- and I think he will. He's my pick to take the checkers on Sunday and essentially lock up a spot in the playoffs with only seven races (after Sunday) left in the regular season.
Here are four other drivers to watch on Sunday:
1. Tony Stewart
Stewart, the reigning Cup champion, is on a nice roll. He won his series-best third race of 2012 last Saturday night at Daytona, has finished third or better in four of his last five races, and now has climbed to fifth in the standings. More and more, it's looking like Stewart is poised to embark on one of his traditional summer tears when he starts to flourish as the temperatures rise and the sun-scorched tracks grow slick -- a condition in which Stewart, a dirt-track racer at heart, thrives.
Stewart finished second last summer at New Hampshire and then backed that up by winning at the flat track in the fall, so clearly he and Newman have their setups dialed in here. Tellingly, four of the last seven drivers that have captured the championship won one of the two events in Loudon. Barring mechanical mishap or getting caught up in an accident, Stewart almost certainly will contend for the win on Sunday afternoon.
2. Kyle Busch
Busch has had a remarkably quiet season. After finishing 24th at Daytona, he's in 12th place in the standings. He's had fast cars this season, but has been undone by horrific luck (he had a string of three engine failures in three races). Yet like Stewart, Busch loves flat, slick race tracks, so he should have a chance to make up ground in the standings in the Granite State.
Busch has one career victory on the paper-clip shaped track and has finished 11th or better in five of his last six starts here. Expect a top-five run from the 18-team.
3. Dale Earnhardt, Jr.
Now second in the points, Earnhardt, for the first time this season, said on Friday that he's in a position to take risks -- both with the setup of his car and on pit road -- to try to win races and earn bonus points that carry into the Chase. So the 88 team could be a wild card this weekend.
Earnhardt's best tracks, statistically, are short ovals, which is why he considers Loudon one of his favorite venues on the circuit, saying it "fits in his wheelhouse." Though he doesn't have a win in New Hampshire, he's finished in the top five in 24 percent (six) of his career starts here (25).
4. Greg Biffle
If a Ford driver is going to contend on Sunday, it likely will be Biffle. He's third in the standings, has been impressively consistent (eight top-five finishes -- only Matt Kenseth and Jimmie Johnson have more), and has flashed solid speed in the past at Loudon, winning once (in 2008) and finishing third here last fall.
Plus, Biffle is in the same position as Earnhardt and can afford to take chances. Look for the 16 team to be very aggressive on pit road throughout the entire race. New Hampshire, after all, is the kind of track where you can essentially steal a checkered flag with cunning pit strategy.