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Behind the Wheel: Plenty of Daytona memories about to be stirred

February 16, 2012, Ryan Newman, Special to NASCAR.COM, NASCAR.com

Newman has highs, lows to lean on as he strives toward first Cup championship

When I drive through the famous Daytona International Speedway tunnel this week to kick off Speedweeks 2012, I will be doing so with the defending championship organization. It's the first time in my career that I can say I'm with a championship team.

It's pretty cool. But to be honest, it took me until the banquet in Las Vegas -- a few weeks after the season finale at Homestead -- to realize that I was a part of [Tony] Stewart's championship. Up until that point, I thought we had just gotten an old-fashioned butt-whipping in the Chase. But on the night of the banquet, when I was heading down to the official ceremony, I finally realized I was part of the championship, which is something very special to me.

"That's why this is such a humbling sport. I'm 100 percent competitive all the time, and I look forward to the opportunities to go back out and prove we're capable of doing what he did."

--RYAN NEWMAN

What Stewart did last season was pretty amazing. I joke that I hope somebody writes a book one day about it so I could learn something. But, more importantly, Stewart proved our organization is championship-capable.

I've used the analogy that the 39 car had the same box of tools as the 14 team, but they went out and built the Statue of Liberty and we built Frosty the Snowman. In all honesty, that's what happened. Until Stewart reeled off five wins in the Chase, we were the highlight reel for Stewart-Haas Racing's 2011 season.

That's why this is such a humbling sport. I'm 100 percent competitive all the time, and I look forward to the opportunities to go back out and prove we're capable of doing what he did. We had a good first 26 races, but our Chase started with us running out of fuel, and it struggled from that point. We had to regroup. We finally had a good couple of races there at the end, which we hope will roll right over into the start of the 2012 season.

We need to start the season strong.

You know, Daytona has been feast or famine for me. Since I've been with SHR, it's been like we have a magnet on our No. 39 U.S. Army/Quicken Loans Chevrolet for being in the wrong place at the right time for an accident to happen. In my first Speedweeks with SHR in 2009, I was on my third race car by the time the green flag waved for the Daytona 500.

But that's the bad -- I'd rather focus on the good experiences I have had at Daytona.

My win there in the 50th running of the Daytona 500 was nothing short of a dream come true. To hear my dad [Greg Newman] call me across the start/finish line to take the checkered flag and win the biggest race of my career was a moment I will never forget. I always say I could hear my dad's teardrops on the radio that evening, and I could.

I still don't know exactly what to say when people ask me about the Daytona 500 win. It was by far the biggest day in my career. It was the culmination of everything that my family and I had sacrificed for all those years of building my racing career and getting me to that moment.

For me, it was the realization of an 8-year-old boy's dream.

I remember my dad pulling me out of middle school up in Indiana and we'd come down to Daytona for Speedweeks. We would get into town in time for the Twin 125s [now the Duels] and stay through the Daytona 500. I guess I was probably 13 or so when we started coming. My grandfather had tickets to Daytona and, when he got sick, my dad and I started coming.

Our seats were in Seagraves Tower. We would sit up there and watch the practices and we'd talk about what the drivers were doing. And maybe what I would be doing one day, too. Sitting in the grandstands was pretty cool, but I didn't want to just sit in the stands and watch the race. I wanted to be in the garage. I wanted to talk to the drivers.

Dad and I would kind of study up on what the garage passes looked like that first day we were in town. That night, we would go to the store and buy some construction paper, glue and some glitter and make our own fake garage passes.

The next day, we would put the garage passes to work. Sometimes they would work and both of us would get through the gate. Sometimes my dad sacrificed himself so I could get in and talk to drivers. I remember, one time, just walking up and talking to Jeff Gordon. [By the way, I probably shouldn't advise people to try this now!]

But it's memories of those days that made my Daytona 500 win so special. It's why the track means more to me than a race.

When I drive through the tunnel this week for the first time to kick off Speedweeks 2012, I'm sure a lot of memories of my past at Daytona will come flooding back.

It's nice to think about the past but, when I drive through that tunnel, it signals one thing: it's time to focus on the 2012 Sprint Cup Series season and our goals for the year. We can talk about our goals of winning races and the championship, but what matters is our actions and how we as a team will ultimately achieve them.

The season begins now.

Behind the Wheel with Ryan Newman runs every other week on NASCAR.COM as he shares his experiences throughout the season, both at and away from the track. The opinions expressed are solely those of Newman.