Prior to last Saturday night's Quaker State 400 at Kentucky Speedway, Ryan Newman had quipped that this season was "probably the best worst season" that he's had "as far as just not having the ultimate numbers," with just five top-10 finishes through the first 16 races of 2014. Although it wasn't earth shattering figures, it was still solid enough to put the 36-year-old South Bend, IN native in the eighth position in points, with nine top-15's assisting their decent start to the year.
After 400 miles or 267 laps were completed at Sparta, KY, Newman and his No. 31 Caterpillar Chevy SS team from the Richard Childress Racing stable scored their first top-five of the season, serving as only the third top-five of the season for this prominent Bowtie Brigade effort. Still, it showed that this RCR collective was getting its act together, as they ran inside the top-10 all evening long and backed up a solid seventh place starting spot with a terrific third place result.
“Having that clean air and that track position is probably more powerful than anything we do with the race car at times, so that's probably the biggest difference,” Newman said. “We've made some gains on the race part, don't get me wrong, and the guys on the engine side are always working and there's no doubt that the Hendrick guys have been the strongest this season. Far above, at some trace tracks (they’ve been the strongest), but we proved tonight that we've made some gains.”
Undoubtedly, track position was the name of the game at the bumpy, treacherous Kentucky Speedway, where those who held their spot towards the front of the field were often rewarded with less turbulence around traffic. Newman was able to race without too much concerns of being around a pack, as he was focused towards gaining spots while his pit crew reeled off some fantastic stops that got their driver in position to challenge for the win.
Ultimately, they came up short but there are tremendous signs of improvement with this team. Perhaps it was a matter of time and needing to acclimate with one another, as Newman was adjusting from five seasons at Stewart-Haas Racing to Richard Childress' stable which houses the cars and crews for teammates Austin Dillon and Paul Menard. In fact, he's been in the midst of working with his third different crew chief in the past two years, working with Luke Lambert after having Tony Gibson and Matt Borland at the helm atop his pit box prior to joining the RCR campus starting this year.
All things considered, Newman and his No. 31 team have worked diligently on becoming a legit race contender and the results have shown in spurts, with a pair of seventh place finishes at Phoenix and Las Vegas as well as six straight races in which they placed 18th or better between Texas and Charlotte. Of course, not all teams, including this group that's somewhat flown under the radar thus far in 2014, would want that distinction, as they'd likely want top-five results on a weekly basis. That said, they are heading towards the right direction with their performances and could punch a ticket into the Chase Grid as early as this Saturday night at Daytona International Speedway.
Since switching to the Chevy contingency after racing with Team Penske from 2002-'08, Newman had a rough three and a half years at "The World Center of Racing," getting wrecked out in two of those seven races and placing 20th or worse in each of those starts. While his results may not have the critics going crazy like a Red Sox fan's day in the life this year, in his past four starts, he's finished 10th or better on three occasions, including a pair of fifth place results in the 2012 July race and the '13 Daytona 500. Overall, he's a driver that might be under the radar for this Saturday night's Coke Zero 400 but he's certainly a name to consider, having won at this 2.5-mile superspeedway for perhaps his biggest win to date in the form of the 2008 Daytona 500.
Admittedly, the spotlight will likely be on the usual suspects, which will be the Hendrick Motorsports' quartet of Jeff Gordon, Kasey Kahne, Jimmie Johnson, and Dale Earnhardt Jr., who are solid restrictor plate racers in their own right. Even RCR teammate Austin Dillon will likely have some of the focus drawn towards his No. 3 team, as driving that prestigious drive in one of NASCAR's most premier tracks certainly carries some weight.
Sure, those are the storylines to consider on Saturday night, but definitely keep an eye on Newman and his No. 31 team. Much like a great summertime steak that needs that bit of flavoring to make it memorable and enjoyable, this interesting group, who've certainly heated up in the early summer races, could be sizzling their way into the Chase with at least a strong result or perhaps, a well done result into Victory Lane.
For all the talk about a season that's not had the ultimate numbers, perhaps NASCAR's "Rocket Man" and his team at the No. 31 RCR shop might have what it takes to solidly get themselves into the Grid and consistently brought up as a factor for Victory Lane at any given race. First, there's the 160-lap/400-miler to tackle at a track which will have the most unsavory of conditions with the usual July humidity and heat, even in dusk to night conditions.
On top of that, as is the case with plate races, it's about staying out of trouble. If Newman can endure the heat (he's a professional, so why not?) and stay ahead or drive through "The Big One," he'll give himself and his team that chance they've been waiting for all season long. Perhaps after all is said and done, all that talk will be about Newman and a place he has been looking to return to for the past six years.