Former crew chief-driver duo both believe spark is still there
When Stewart-Haas Racing needed a crew chief to oversee Ryan Newman’s program for what might be only a one-year basis, the organization knew just who to turn to -- the man who would have the most difficult time saying no.
So what made Matt Borland come back?
“Insanity. I’m not sure,” he said. “It was a good opportunity, a good time to do it, a good opportunity to work with Ryan again at that level versus more of a management standpoint. So it’s kind of exciting from that standpoint, getting to work with him again.”
And with that, the duo that won 12 races over a lightning-in-a-bottle span at Penske Racing is together again at SHR, where they will compete not just to get Newman back in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup, but to keep him behind the wheel at his current organization beyond 2013.
"Sometimes it’s simple changes like that that make a huge difference."
-- Tony Stewart, team owner
The driver of the No. 39 car is working under a one-year contract, and with Kevin Harvick due to arrive next season, Newman and Borland need all the performance they can muster.
Which, from a SHR perspective, made this the ideal time to reunite a driver and a crew chief who burned brightly during much of their five full years together on Roger Penske’s No. 12 car. The pair split up following the 2006 season but remained close friends. In recent years they’ve worked together in a more indirect capacity, with Borland -- who joined the Haas team well before Tony Stewart became co-owner -- overseeing SHR’s engineering department and Newman wheeling the No. 39.
After last season, when Newman won a race but finished 14th in points, former crew chief Tony Gibson was shifted to Danica Patrick’s program. With Newman on a one-year deal and a relatively new crew assembled around him, SHR wanted a crew chief who could bring some familiarity, and hopefully get that unit off the ground quickly. Borland was the natural choice, even though the Generation-6 car is very different from the one he and Newman won all those races in, and even though he hadn’t been on the box since 2008.
“They won’t have to learn each other,” said Greg Zipadelli, SHR’s competition director. “Matt knows what Ryan is looking for and how to communicate with him. He doesn’t necessarily know what he needs in this car, but that part of it will hopefully speed things up. But now there’s a lot of people on that race team who are new and young and haven’t been to the race track, so they’ll all have to jell and do their job in order for it to be successful.”
Of course, there are no guarantees, particularly given that Newman and Borland’s last stint together ended with a thud. The two parted after a winless 2006, having used up whatever magic generated eight wins and 11 poles just three years earlier. But the personal relationship remained and SHR is betting that if anyone can pull a big year out of Newman when he most needs it, it’s the guy who was best man at his wedding.
“I think Ryan has a lot of confidence in Matt, and vice versa,” Stewart said. “I think it’s a renewed spark in Matt, and at the same time a renewed spark in Ryan, and sometimes it’s simple changes like that that make a huge difference. We’ll wait and see.”
There certainly were flashes at the end of last season, when Borland came on board to call Newman’s final four events. The result was one of the better stretches Newman had in all of 2012, closing with a third-place result at Homestead-Miami Speedway that was bettered only by his victory at Martinsville Speedway in April. Now the car may be changing, but not the relationship between two engineers who approach things in a very similar way.
“We think a lot alike. Sometimes it’s scary,” Newman said “… Obviously, I lost some of my relationship with Matt when we separated at Penske, but I always stayed in contact with him. We had such a good time, a bad experience wasn’t going to ruin it for us. We’ve done a lot of good of things at the race track, and had some fun, and succeeded many, many times, and we look forward to rekindling that together.”
Even Newman’s old boss, who toyed with the idea of rehiring his former driver before bringing Joey Logano aboard after last season, likes the combination.
“Borland is a smart guy, and I think they’ll find out that Borland on the box will be a big asset to him,” Penske said, “because they like each other, they trust each other, and they’ve won together.”
Hanging above it all, though, are questions about what happens after 2013. Newman has backing for much of this season thanks to an 18-race commitment from Quicken Loans, but Harvick’s looming presence casts everything into uncertainty. Zipadelli indicates the Borland-Newman arrangement isn’t long term.
“Matt was leading up our group of engineers, and for him to come back and do this for a year would allow us to tie engineering and racing back together a little bit,” he said.
As far as Newman is concerned, all he can do is drive the car.
“It’s not a distraction to me. I don’t think it’s a distraction,” he said. “It’s something I have to work on, but it’s nothing different from what I’ve had to work on my entire life. You just never know. It’s not like something is going to fall out of the sky and land in your lap. You have to work at it. And my goal this year is to work at what I need to do for this year. It will all come together.”
Ultimately, results on the race track will go a long way toward determining Newman’s fate.
“As with all these guys, it’s going to be the scoreboard. What kind of results can you generate?” Penske said.
No wonder Borland feels a sense of urgency, given all the No. 39 team has at stake.
“Absolutely, a lot of pressure,” he said. “We fully expect to run well again, we fully expect to be challenging for poles, be challenging for leading laps, be challenging for winning races. Ryan is very driven to succeed. I’m the same way, and we’re trying to build people around that group with the same mindset. So anything less than that will be definitely a failure in my mind.”
Newman, though, takes it all in stride. “If I go I go, if I stay I stay,” he said of his future at SHR. The level of pressure he feels at this career crossroad is no different than at any other time.
“I think every year is a make it or break it year for all of us, and obviously I have it more on the line right now with a one-year contract, and I’d like to think that after 10 or 11 years of doing this, I wouldn’t be in this position,” he said. “But I am for a reason, so it’s up to me personally as well as my team to be successful, and success answers all questions.”