For Newman and RCR, timing was finally right
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Ryan Newman met Richard Childress at the team owner's museum, where they chatted about Dale Earnhardt and the legacy of the No. 3. The driver toured the Richard Childress Racing facility in Welcome, N.C., and was impressed by how the organization built all its own engines and car bodies. Although there was plenty of mutual interest between the two racers and outdoorsmen, a deal never came together -- until five seasons later.
Better late than never, Newman is at last with RCR as heir to a No. 31 ride vacated by Jeff Burton's move away from full-time competition. For both sides, the timing of the union appears ideal -- Newman is surrounded by a much more seasoned group than he had supporting him in his final season at Stewart-Haas Racing, and the 17-time race winner in the Sprint Cup Series lends a veteran presence to an organization moving on without mainstays Burton and Kevin Harvick.
"He's our kind of people," general manager Mike Dillon called Newman, and indeed it's easy to envision the new hire and Childress shooting turkeys as much as shooting the bull. But perhaps more important to RCR is Newman's consistency on the track as someone who's won races four years running, and made the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup in three of the past five seasons. With Paul Menard returning and rookie Austin Dillon making the step up, it's easy to view Newman as the new standard-bearer for an organization that saw a combined 34 years and 44 victories depart after last season.
Except that nobody at RCR quite sees it that way. "I think he'll carry his own load with RCR for sure, and I think Austin can be a help," Childress said. "… I really think if you look back at some of the situations Paul Menard was in, he should have made the Chase two or three years. He just had problems when we didn't need to … but we're going to work on that and get that fixed."
Indeed, if there was one message stressed over and over Tuesday during RCR's visit with the NASCAR Sprint Media Tour presented by Charlotte Motor Speedway, it's that this is a team grounded less in individual stars than it is a renewed commitment to engineering and technology. "It feels different," Newman's crew chief, Luke Lambert said, "really because of the evolution we're undergoing at RCR and building a more technically strong company."
As for offsetting the losses of Harvick and Burton, "I think that there's only a percentage of that that's the responsibility of the driver," Newman said. "Richard has done a really good job of putting together a leadership team in the form of engineers and staff that can do that and not have to wait on the drivers. … That's a pretty solid staff of engineers and directors that's going to make things happen, and they're hands-on. They're experienced. They've been to Victory Lane, they know how to make it work."
If anything, the biggest beneficiary of all this might be Newman, given that he's in a far more stable situation than he was last season at SHR. Then, as essentially a lame-duck driver working on a one-year contract, he was paired with a crew chief begrudgingly moved from the engineering department, and a crew so green some of them had never been on the road. That Newman still won at Indianapolis and made the Chase -- granted, thanks to a penalty incurred by Martin Truex Jr. in the wake of the race-manipulation scandal at Richmond -- has to stand as one of the more underappreciated feats of his career.
Is his current situation better? "Absolutely. Much better situation," he said. "We put together a team (at SHR) that was unestablished. We had people on our team that had never been into a garage before, let alone a Cup garage. I personally am in a much better situation as far as experience goes. I'm not saying we're going to go out there and win the Brickyard and the Daytona 500 and both Charlotte races. I'm not saying that. I'm saying that if you look at experience, I'm in a much more experienced role than I was a year ago at this time."
And RCR was in better position to accommodate Newman than it was in late 2008, the last time the two sides talked about joining together. Back then, as Newman was nearing the end of his run with Roger Penske, RCR had a roster that included Harvick, Burton and Clint Bowyer, and didn't have enough financial flexibility to bring Newman on board. "Richard's not going to put the company in a situation where we're financially in trouble, so on our end of it we just couldn't do it," Mike Dillon remembered. "We wanted to, but we just couldn't get it done. That's all it was."
On both ends, though, an affinity remained. Newman came away with an appreciation for a self-sufficient organization, something that contrasted with his eventual home of SHR, which buys its engines and chassis from Hendrick Motorsports. And RCR knew it had a kindred soul out there, something Mike Dillon was reminded of watching Newman's in-car camera footage as the driver fought to win last year's regular-season finale at Richmond, where he led in the waning laps but eventually finished third after some shenanigans intervened.
"He was up on the wheel," Dillon said. "Man, if he could have had more slack in his belts, he'd have had his head on the steering wheel. His elbows were up, and he was just digging. That to me just showed how bad he wanted it. And I'm like, 'Damn, I'm glad we got this guy.' I've always liked Ryan Newman, always respected him. But man, when I saw that in-car camera, and how hard he was digging, and what a difference he made in that run -- I'm like, 'All right, we're going to be good.' "
And being good remains the expectation at RCR, despite Harvick's departure for the same SHR outfit that did not retain Newman after last season. "Ryan's going to be competing for a championship this year. He can, and he can win it," Mike Dillon said. Given his resume, Newman seems the most likely member of the Childress cast to mount such a charge and pick up the mantle left behind by last season's third-place finisher in final points. But to those at RCR, the 2014 season isn't about filling the void left by the drivers who aren't around anymore -- it's about the potential of the drivers who are there now.
"I feel what we're getting with Ryan coming into our 31 team is a tremendous boost for our group," Lambert said. "Obviously, he's had a very proven career, been very successful, and that success all the way up through last year is very encouraging. From our very first test, it seems like we've been very comfortable working with each other. Ryan has shown his speed right off the bat, and his knowledge and experience in the race car right off the bat. That, for me, is very encouraging for what we have to look forward to. It's not so much we're losing one driver and replacing him with another. It's more, what we're gaining with Ryan is a huge asset."