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Sprint Cup - Newman Race Preview

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KANNAPOLIS, Sept. 21, 2011: Almost perfection. That’s how Ryan Newman and his No. 39 Stewart-Haas Racing (SHR) team would describe their dominating performance at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in Loudon just 10 weeks ago.

For the South Bend, Ind., native and everyone else at SHR, there’s no doubt it was a magical weekend at the track known as The Magic Mile. After earning the pole position in qualifying on Friday afternoon, Newman went wire to wire – driving from his No. 1 starting spot to victory lane – for his 15th Sprint Cup win, his third at New Hampshire and his first in 2011.

The win, which helped secure Newman a spot in this year’s Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Championship, served notice to his competitors in the garage that Newman and his No. 39 Haas Automation team would be both determined and daring as they compete and contend for the 2011 title.

During that July race, crew chief Tony Gibson made a gutsy call to keep Newman’s superfast No. 39 Chevrolet out front rather than pit under caution. Only once during the 301-lap race did Gibson call for a four-tire change. In the end, Newman pitted for the final time on lap 217, and Gibson spent the remaining 84 laps urging his driver to save fuel at every opportunity.

The bold call paid off and landed Newman & Company in victory lane for the first time in 47 races. Newman led six times for 119 laps, and it was just the fourth time in his 10-year career that he had won from the pole position.

The win was all part of a banner and history-making weekend for SHR. Newman and teammate-team owner Tony Stewart started 1-2 and finished 1-2. The last time a team started 1-2 and finished 1-2 was Hendrick Motorsports in the 1989 Daytona 500. However, the last time a team started 1-2 and finished 1-2 with the same drivers in the same order was back on April 7, 1957, at North Wilkesboro (N.C.) Speedway with DePaolo Engineering. There, Fireball Roberts won from the pole while teammate Paul Goldsmith started second and finished second.

Now, as the Sprint Cup Series makes its return to New Hampshire Motor Speedway this weekend for the second race in the Chase, the No. 39 team has set as its goal a return visit to the 1.058-mile flat track’s victory lane.

After a solid eighth-place effort in the Chase’s first race at Chicagoland Speedway in Joliet, Ill., Newman is now seventh in the standings, but tied with sixth-place Brad Keselowski, 14 points arrears leader Kevin Harvick. Keselowski gets the sixth spot because he has three wins this season, compared to Newman’s one trip to victory lane.

Perhaps there’s no better racetrack for Newman to continue his ascent in the point standings than New Hampshire. In 19 starts at Loudon, he has three wins (September 2002 and 2005, July 2011), six top-five finishes and 13 top-10s.

And not only is the track the site of Newman’s most recent Sprint Cup win, statistically speaking, it is one of his best tracks in the 10-race Chase.

In fact, the Magic Mile ranks second among the 10 venues in both average start and average finish for the Purdue University engineering graduate. Newman, with five poles in 19 starts at New Hampshire, has an average starting position of 8.5. His average finish is 12.4, just slightly bettered by his 10.9 average finish at Dover (Del.) International Speedway.

For Newman and his Gibson-led race team, the key over these final nine races is the same consistency which the team has demonstrated throughout the course of the 2011 season – the same consistency that helped the team earn a berth in the Chase. In 27 races, Newman has one win, two poles, eight top-five and 14 top-10 finishes. He has completed 99.3 percent of the laps run thus far this season and has not posted a DNF (did not finish).

With two consecutive top-10s – both eighth-place efforts at Chicagoland and Richmond (Va.) International Raceway – and four top-10s in the last five races, Newman and the No. 39 Chevrolet appear headed in the right direction.

And with a return trip to New Hampshire’s Magic Mile on tap for this weekend, don’t be surprised if Newman & Company has something up its proverbial sleeve to relive and repeat that magical moment from July in hopes of continuing its march up the Sprint Cup standings toward another history-making milestone – Newman’s first Sprint Cup Series championship.

RYAN NEWMAN, Driver of the No. 39 Haas Automation Chevrolet Impala for Stewart-Haas Racing:

You have three wins at New Hampshire, including your most recent one in July. It’s also one of your best racetracks in the Chase for the Sprint Cup Championship. What makes you so good at New Hampshire?

“New Hampshire has always been a good place for me. I’m not 100-percent sure why. It’s the place of my first win, when I hadn’t won in a long while, 70 some races. I won again there. This past July, we were able to qualify and finish 1-2 at Stewart-Haas. So, I really look forward to it, obviously. For whatever reason, and I still don’t know the answer as to why, I enjoy Loudon. Don’t get me wrong, but I have no idea why we have been as good as we are there. I will say that the track – you have to be – it’s a real finesse racetrack. And that’s why I don’t get it. I mean, I love slamming a car into the racetrack, 24 degrees of banking, being able to bottom out and being able to drive it in harder because the racetrack will allow you to do that. At Loudon, you cannot do that. I think, at the same time, though, if you look at myself and (Tony) Stewart and (Jeff) Gordon, you’ve got to know that limit of when the car is right on the edge. I think dirt-track racing has a little bit to do with it. Not to say that other guys haven’t been good there, I just think my background and what I’ve raced in the past has really helped me to have that mixture of patience and aggressiveness and finesse and knowing when to push buttons, which I think you need to have at New Hampshire.”

You’re taking the same car that you took to New Hampshire in July, and you obviously had a good set-up for the track just a couple of months ago. What are the keys to running well at Loudon?

“I look forward to going back from a car standpoint. We have that on our side. Our short-track program at Stewart-Haas Racing has been our strength – it has been our bread and butter. If you look at the 39 team’s stats, we are really good on the short tracks. To have that finish in July – to finish 1-2 – and just our consistency in general, recently, makes it a place we really look forward to going back to this weekend. Loudon is a track where, if you have the car good on Friday, then more than likely it’s going to stay right for Sunday. More than likely, you can transfer your qualifying effort into a solid run on Sunday. You can’t overdrive the car there very much because it’s so flat. I’ve always said it’s the birthplace of track position. It’s a relatively short race. Basically, you only need to stop for fuel two, maybe three times, depending on cautions. You don’t get a whole lot of opportunities to work on your racecar. You start up front (and) you have a good chance of staying up front. Back in July, Gibson made a lot of great strategy calls that put us in position to stay out front and eventually win. He made gutsy calls on two tires to give us track position and save fuel. And in the end, we had just enough of everything to get that first win for the season. It was a huge momentum- and confidence-builder for our team. It was a very pivotal win for us, and if we could come close to duplicating that in the second race of the Chase, it’s something we would all be very proud of.”

One race in the 10-race Chase for the Championship is in the books, and the No. 39 team came away with a top-10 finish. What does that eighth-place effort mean to you and your team, and do you have momentum going into this weekend?

“We’ve been much more consistent this year, and right now we’ve put together a good string of top-five and top-10 finishes that have come at the right time for our team. That’s actually one of the things about Monday’s finish at Chicago that I’m especially proud of. I’m really proud of our team. I’m really proud that we were able to go to a mile-and-a-half racetrack where we had run well at in the past, but we didn’t at all last year. We really struggled at those types of racetracks and, obviously, they are a major part of the Chase. So, Monday was a good finish and I really can’t complain, other than saying where we finished Monday was the worst we had run all day long. It was a huge improvement for us, overall. We should have been third with a little better fuel mileage, and that would have been an awesome way to start the Chase. But, regardless, it was a really good day and I think it was a momentum- and confidence-builder for us going into the second race of the Chase.

“For us, we just have to keep doing what we’re doing. According to a lot of people, we’re not on the radar and I’m OK with that. We have the opportunity to win a championship and we just have to stay focused and do our best to get the best finishes we can each and every week.”

Your first career Sprint Cup win also came at New Hampshire. What do you remember about that particular race, and what did it do for your confidence?

“I remember that I was trying to lap Sterling Marlin, who was the points leader at the time. Kurt Busch was giving me little love taps down the straightaways (and) corners. Never really shook me loose, just made me realize he was there. We all know the track is one of the most difficult to pass at. I think it was a little more difficult back then, even more so than today to pass. I had Kurt breathing down my back. I forget what lap number it was that the rain finally came. I had virtually no brakes left in the racecar. We had air in the (braking) system. I was pumping the snot out of the pedal down the straightaway just trying to get the car to slow down. Between trying to lap the guy who’s leading the points and having Kurt breathing down my back, it was textbook. I couldn’t have asked for the rain any sooner because I needed it when it came and it worked out for us.

“It was big for our confidence. That was our second win as a team because we had won the (non-points) All-Star Race before that. We felt we had been knocking on the door several times. We were close at Richmond earlier in the year – ran second to Stewart. We had good racecars every week. I was inexperienced. You have a lot of drive to get that first victory, that first points win, not that I don’t now. Even though it wasn’t the end of the race – we weren’t three-wide backward at the start-finish line – I was proud of the team effort going into that race, being able to hold off Kurt, not crash Sterling, not upset in the least about getting my first victory.”