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Thursday, January 18, 2007

NASCAR Driver Preview: Ryan Newman

Ryan Newman Age: 29
0 wins, 2 top 5's, 7 top 10's, 15 top 15's
Avg Start: 11.6 Avg Finish: 20.6
Points Rank: 18th Driver Rating: 76.3
#12 Alltel Dodge Crew Chief: Michael Nelson

2006 began with optimism for Ryan Newman. He finished 3rd in the Daytona 500, his best restrictor plate finish ever. Then Penske dusted off the Dodge Intrepid for the next three races. The initial plan was to run the Intrepid at the intermediate speedway tracks the entire season. Dodge mandated all teams to run the Charger after the seventh race of the season. That set Penske's plans back, something they didn't fully recover from in 2006. Ryan Newman didn't have a pole or a top ten finish on 1.5 or 2 mile tracks. He suffered career lows in every category. By his standards, the 18th place points finish was unthinkable.

Newman had a decent summer, scoring seven top fifteens in eight races through Daytona. Things began to really sour in July. After winning his second pole of the season at Loudon, Newman was involved in a crash with Tony Stewart. Stewart was leading the race while Newman had just pitted for fresh tires. Newman was trying to pass Stewart and regain a lap, but neither let off. The result was both crashed, ruining the race for both drivers. He scored only two more top tens the rest of the season (Watkins Glen, Bristol). He had zero during the Chase.

It was also during the Chase that Newman got a new crew chief. Matt Borland took a personal leave of absence. The leave became permanent after the season when Borland moved to Michael Waltrip Racing to work with Dale Jarrett. Borland had worked with Newman since his days in the Busch series. They both emphasized the engineering tack when working on the cars. It's hard to speculate why Borland left, but things were obviously stagnant in 2006. Michael Nelson assumes the crew chief position on the #12 team.

As spotty as the intermediate program was, Penske's other areas were quite strong. The restrictor plate program improved significantly in 2006 and the road course package was arguably the top in Cup. To help on the aero-sensitive tracks, Dodge teams will have a new nose for the Charger. This is intended to reduce the debris collected on the grille. This has caused overheating issues in the past. The new nose will also make the car more neutral to changes, a major complaint and one of the reasons why Penske tried to use the less finicky Intrepid.

Many of the question marks about Newman's season rest on the management and direction at Penske. Can Penske improve or continue to stumble over themselves? In an era when every team is expanding to three and four cars, Penske contracted from three to two cars for 2006. While other teams and manufacturers emphasized sharing information, Penske tended to shy from this practice. Newman's team never talked to Rusty Wallace's. Penske insisted on perfecting the Dodge Intrepid (with terrible results) instead of aligning with the other Dodge teams to improve the Charger.

Despite his desire to outsmart other teams, Newman is a fantastically talented driver. He can handle any type of track. He is always a threat to win at Loudon or Dover and can also scored two top tens at road courses. He was even stout at restrictor plate tracks, far from his favorite race. Newman also has a penchant for crashing. He had 15 in 2006 and over the last four years he has averaged 11.25 per season. One way to reduce the chances for a crash are running closer to the front of the pack. The drivers are typically more patient and are obviously the more skilled drivers.

After a chilly relationship with former teammate Wallace, Newman and Kurt Busch appear to share information more freely. With only two teams this is vital. It's hard to predict much improvement for Newman in 2007. His strongest tracks in '06 will now feature the Car of Tomorrow. Penske has not always adapted well to changes and this could happen in 2007. Newman will still compete for wins at Dover and the road courses, but it's hard to imagine a return to the consistency he enjoyed in 2003 and 2004.

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