He has been the forgotten man at Stewart-Haas Racing -- strike that, he's been the forgotten man in all of NASCAR -- for most of this season. Until last Sunday at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Ryan Newman had floundered in the middle pack through the first 19 races of 2013, rarely challenging to crack the top 10. Outside the car, he blended into the background shadows cast by his SHR teammates Tony Stewart and Danica Patrick, two of NASCAR's most towering figures.
It was easy to forget that Newman was once the brightest rising star in the sport. In 2003, in only his second full year on the Sprint Cup circuit, he won a series-high eight races, led a Cup-best 1,509.13 miles and won the most poles (eight). Newman finished sixth in the standings that season, but at the time it was taken as article of the faith in the garage that he would one day win a championship.
A decade later, Newman, now 35, is still searching for his first Cup title. He's qualified for the Chase four times (in '04, '05, '09 and '11), but never finished higher than sixth in the standings. He's consistently been a good -- not great -- driver. That's enough to earn respect among his peers, which Newman has in abundance, but not a long-term deal with an elite race team. Even though Newman and Stewart are close friends, Stewart, the majority owner of Stewart-Haas Racing, announced earlier this year that Newman wouldn't return to the team in 2014. Kevin Harvick will take Newman's spot in SHR's driver lineup starting in next February's Daytona 500.
So last weekend heading into the Brickyard 400, Newman's career was at crossroads. He was 18th in points, was winless in his last 49 starts, was coming off a 39th place finish at New Hampshire and was a man without a team for '14. Nothing was going right.
Then, Hoosier magic struck. Newman, an Indiana native who had struggled with the balance of his No. 39 Chevy all season, blazed to his first pole in nearly two years. A day later he ran in the top-five for the majority of the Brickyard 400. Late in the race, when Jimmie Johnson endured an ice age of a pit stop -- 17 seconds -- Newman seized the lead. With virtually his entire extended family watching from the pits and the grandstands, he then held off Johnson to take his first checkered flag of the season. "We came here, proved that we can come back and fight back," Newman said. "We're not out of this Chase, we're not out of this chance for a championship."
He certainly isn't, and suddenly Newman's lost season doesn't appear so lost anymore. He's now 16th in the points. While it's unlikely that he'll power his way into the top-10 in the standings by the end of the regular season -- and thereby guarantee himself a slot in the Chase --Newman can still earn one of the two wild cards that are handed out to drivers ranked 11th through 20th with the most wins. As of now, it appears that a driver in that range in the standings with two wins would advance to the playoffs.
So Newman needs one more victory in the final six regular season races to make the Chase. Where's his best chance to reach Victory Lane over these next six weeks? On Sunday at Pocono (Pa.) Raceway.
Newman should be fast at Pocono -- a quirky, 2.5-mile triangle-shaped venue -- because it has similar characteristics to Indy: fast, long straightaways and relatively flat corners. As it was at the Brickyard, qualifying will be crucial at Pocono; once the green flag drops, it's extremely hard to pass due to the so-called aero-push that the cars generate (imagine hitting a wind tunnel of air when trying to pass a truck on a highway and you'll understand aero-push). But this emphasis on qualifying should play into Newman's hands; he's won two career poles at Pocono and is still considered one of the best qualifiers in the sport.
It would be an upset if he won, no doubt, but Newman is my pick to take the checkers on Sunday. And if that happens, be assured that several prominent car owners will call him on Sunday night to discuss 2014 and beyond.
Here are four other drivers to watch when the green flag drops on race No. 21 of the 2013 NASCAR season:
1. Jimmie Johnson
The last time the series stopped at Pocono, on June 9, Johnson had perhaps his most dominating weekend of the season: He won the pole, led 128 of the 160 laps, and breezed to Victory Lane. He made it look as easy as a drive through a wide-open countryside on a languid Sunday afternoon.
Can Johnson repeat? History says he can: The last time Johnson won the spring race at Pocono, in 2004, he took the checkered flag in the summer event as well. No question, the No. 48 crew is the team to beat on Sunday.
2. Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Will this finally be the weekend for Junior? Winless in 2013, Earnhardt had one of his best runs of the season in June at Pocono, when he finished third. In 27 career Cup races here Earnhardt has never won, but he's finished in the top 10 in four of his last five starts at Pocono. I still think Earnhardt, who is currently fifth in the standings, will take one checkered flag before the start of the Chase.
3. Greg Biffle
Of all the Ford-powered drivers, I give Biffle the best chance to win on Sunday. Eighth in points, Biffle typically flourishes on flat, long, fast tracks like Pocono. He came in second here in June.
This is an important race for the No. 16 team. Biffle has been in a funk recently -- his average finish over the last four starts is 22.5 -- but this track should be the perfect tonic for all that currently ails this race team. Yet if Biffle should struggle on Sunday, it will indicate to the rest of the garage that he likely won't be a serious player in the Chase.
4. Kyle Busch
It was clear last week at Indy the Toyotas were down on horsepower. Just look at the final stat sheet: Of the top nine finishers at the Brickyard, only one was piloting a Toyota -- Matt Kenseth, who came in fifth.
But word around the track is that the engineers at TRD (Toyota Racing Development) have been working overtime this week and that the Toyota engines should be much more powerful at Pocono. The primary beneficiary of this should be Kyle Busch, who is currently seventh in the standings.
Busch has had an odd year: Though he's led the second most total laps in the series (1,037) behind Johnson (1,093), Busch has far more finishes of 20th or worse (seven) than wins (two). He remains the quintessential boom-or-bust, all-or-nothing driver. But I think the fast version of Busch will appear on Sunday. He came in sixth at Pocono in June and he's overdue for a strong run.
However, I still believe he won't be able to catch Newman, who on Friday morning said he needs to prove that Indy wasn't just a fluke or a "one-off deal." On Sunday, I think he'll do just that.