Father-son bond drives 500 winner

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Security was a bit wanting at the Daytona International Speedway garage gate in the early 1990s, or Newman and his son, Ryan, were exceptional counterfeiters. Either way, their foray to a local Winn-Dixie for construction paper and shiny green cards that worked wonderfully as fake Daytona 500 hot passes had been a qualified success. Ryan, an Indiana kid with dreams of one day racing in NASCAR's grand event, sat on the pit wall before coaxing an autograph from A.J. Foyt.

On Sunday, the junior Newman stood in the driver's meeting before the 50th running of the Daytona 500. There was Foyt, being recognized with the rest of the legendary living winners.

By Sunday night, Newman was roaring through Turn 4, Penske Racing teammate Kurt Busch pushing him to the front on the final lap, his father wailing over his radio as he spotted for his son high atop the track. Passing the grandstands where he sat as a boy and the garage where he laughed about those mischievous moments with his father, advice from years ago became more pertinent that ever. Act like you know what you're doing and keep going.

And so he did.

Newman had come to his first Daytona 500 at age 15 with his father. They slept on hotel floors, ate Krispy Kreme donuts for breakfast and dinner, "made a good time of it.''

Though twice that age now, an established star with a powerful team, Newman still couldn't comprehend on Monday that he had actually won the Daytona 500.

"[My father] would pick me up from work and pull me out of school. The stipulation was I had to have my schoolwork done,'' he remembered. "We had a logbook for records of which state we could clear the fastest. Four hours South Bend to Kentucky. We had a hot rod Cadillac. It was all good times.

"One of the first things we talked about this weekend, 'Remember pulling into a Cracker Barrel and sleeping?' I remember getting up in the middle of night having to take a leak and it was raining too hard so I just stayed in the car. We've been through a lot of things. True story. So much effort has gone into me sitting here.''

Greg Newman's racing career ended at age 9 -- basically at its inception -- in a parking lot where he and his father one afternoon tested a three-quarter midget they had built. "He was riding on a nerf bar, reached in front of me where I couldn't see and I hit a lightpole,'' Greg Newman recalled. "It put him and I both in the hospital. I was unconscious for a day and my mother said the race car is going away and what started to be my racing career was over the same day.''

It began anew, in effect, 16 years later when Ryan was born, the first of two children and Greg and Diane's only son. "Before he hit the doctor's hands,'' Greg remembers, "when I saw what he had between his legs, I said, 'We've got us a race car driver.'''

By the father's recollection, his son could disassemble and assemble the quarter midgets he was preparing for him by age five and a half. Every night he made Ryan give it a hug and a kiss. Newman had already been racing for a year by then. Every night Ryan could pry his father away from work, he'd win the Daytona 500 on the high-banked slot car track they had erected in the basement.

"I think we were both Richard Petty,'' Greg grinned, when asked who Ryan pretended to be in their slot car battles. The fact that Petty, a winner of a record seven Daytona 500s, came knocking on his motorhome door late Sunday night, was therefore no small moment for Newman.

The allure and mystique of open wheel racing is strong in Indiana, but Newman decided as a teenager that stock car racing was his path. He initially tested a car with Panther Racing -- which won two Indy Racing League titles with his new Sprint Cup teammate, Sam Hornish Jr. -- and rejected a contract offer from Team Green, which became three-time Indy Racing League champion Andretti Green. "His total concern was 'let's wait for the right deal','' Greg said, almost relieved. "(He said) 'I like my legs too much to hurt myself in one of those things.'''

Ironically, Diane Newman's recollections of a horrible crash by her son in the 2003 Daytona 500 -- where his No. 12 Dodge shredded and began cartwheeling after its axle dug into the apron grass -- in part prevented her from being at the track on Sunday. She had stayed home to comfort a recently widowed friend, but called her husband around 2:30 p.m. on race day expressing her sadness about not being there.

Another conspicuously absent loved one was former Penske Racing president Don Miller. The former racer and partner in the company, he'd convinced Roger Penske to sign Newman while he was racing part-time as a junior vehicle structural engineering student at Purdue. He befriended Newman and wife Krissie and the two rebuilt old cars together. It was not unusual to see the Newmans and Millers playing board games together in hotel lobbies during race weekends. But with the stock car team's performance stagnating, Penske bought out Miller's stake and replaced him with Tim Cindric, a brilliant engineer who'd become a vital part of the team's ultra successful open wheel operation. The team made immediate inroads under Cindric, but that didn't lessen the hurt for Newman as Miller slowly faded away.

"Without Don we would absolutely not be here,'' Greg Newman said.

So as drivers fired their engines on Sunday, Greg called Ryan, keyed his radio microphone and pressed the phone speaker to it.

"Don's favorite saying is, 'Drive it like you stole it, Rain Man','' So he got to do it,'' the father said, tearing up.

Newman's career seemingly began anew with the victory, or at least ended an 81-race winless streak. A one-time prodigy who led NASCAR's highest level with eight wins in his second full season in 2003, he's claimed victory just four times since. A once-brilliant chemistry with crew chief Matt Borland -- the best man at his wedding -- turned sour and his relationship with veteran team icon Rusty Wallace became malignant. Busch replaced Wallace and seemed capable of providing something for Newman which Wallace either refused or was unable to deliver. On Sunday, that something was a push to the front past race-leading Tony Stewart on the final lap -- even after Newman blocked Busch's advance in the high line.

But the rest was up to Newman. He'd never again need a credential, legitimate or otherwise, in this place if this worked out.

So he fell back on some sage advice: Act like you know what you're doing. And keep going.