Ryan Newman hadn't been in the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship since 2005, and it wasn't expected in the first season of Stewart-Haas Racing. But the Rocketman has re-entered the 10-race playoff thanks to a composed and gutsy run to 10th at Richmond that put him 77 points in front of 13th-placed Kyle Busch.
Newman arrived at Stewart-Haas a driver on a mission to re-establish himself as a Chase-level driver. He was 17th in the championship last year, 13th in 2007 and 18th in 2006. This is the same driver who beat out Jimmie Johnson for rookie of the year in 2002 and had eight wins and 17 top fives the next season. Newman became Rocketman in 2003 for taking 11 poles. He was in the Chase in the next two seasons. Nobody saw the next three seasons coming, when he'd win only one race -- even though it was the Daytona 500 -- and became an also-ran in the championship.
After Newman's eight seasons with Penske Racing, the team that groomed him from an open-wheel USAC Sprint, Midget and Silver Crown driver with its ABC (ARCA, Busch, Cup) stock-car program, it was time for him to try something new.
Tony Stewart's decision to accept Gene Haas' offer of co-ownership coincided with the end of Newman's contract with Penske. Newman joining Stewart wasn't just a deal, it was destiny.
"People say it looked like a risk to leave Penske Racing, but to me, it looked like an opportunity," Newman said. "Yeah, there was risk associated with it, but it was n opportunity. I'm extremely gratified to be in this position.
"It's a dream come true. To think back to Daytona (in February), going through basically three race cars and make it to Richmond here and be in this position, it says a lot about the hard work that [crew chief] Tony Gibson, Tony Stewart and everybody has put into this effort."
Newman doesn't have a win this year, but neither do Carl Edwards, Juan Pablo Montoya and Greg Biffle, and they're all in the Chase, too. Newman was 32nd in the points after four races, but he had five top fives, three more top 10s, a 15th and an 18th in the next 10 to move up to a season-high fourth. The Chevrolet driver had only four more top 10s in the next 12 races, but there were none of those 30th-or-worse finishes, either, and Newman never fell out of the top 10.
Heading to Richmond, Newman was 81 points in front of 13th-place Brian Vickers. Newman was in a good position, but he wasn't there yet. He was fourth in Richmond I, so a baseline setup to run in the top 10 was there. Newman and Gibson crafted a game plan to race for the Chase. From 21st starting position, Newman stayed clean and Glover made improvements on pit stops. Mission accomplished.
"At the start of the race, we struggled a little bit," Newman said. "We finally got the car rolling and where it would turn a little better in the center and tightened up off [the corner]. Tony Gibson and the guys did a great job."
Stewart, who last month secured his place in the Chase for the fifth time in six seasons, had Newman on his mind the entire race at Richmond.
"I worried the whole night about where Ryan was," he said. "We were in our own battles all night and every time the caution would come out, I would count the leader all the way back to where he was. He was right where he needed to be or within a couple of spots of it the whole night.
"He did his job, he did an awesome job. I got ahead of him at one point and I lost the handle and lost about four spots and couldn't get them back. I am proud of Ryan and his guys and what they were able to do. It was a hard night knowing you are under the gun like that and wanting to win the race and at the same time trying to gather points to get in the Chase."
Stewart-Haas has two cars in the Chase. Richard Childress Racing has none. Joe Gibbs Racing, the organization Stewart left, has one in Denny Hamlin.
"Would we have bet on this at Daytona?" Stewart said. "No way. This is a tough series and to get two cars in the Chase is unbelievable."
Newman isn't among the Chase favorites. Stewart, Johnson, Hamlin and Jeff Gordon are the four strongest contenders for the championship.
"We have to pick up our performance a little bit," Newman said. "If you look at the last few races, we've gotten better, but if you want to win this championship, statistically it takes a lot better finish than we did (at Richmond). We're not taking a go-for-broke attitude, but we are going to have fun in the next 10 races."
Newman's return to the Chase has accomplished his first and most difficult goal in moving to Stewart-Haas. He's only 31 and, compared to where he was a year ago, has a very promising future with Cup's newest powerhouse organization.