Ryan Newman may have used a bit of pit strategy this past weekend to earn his first top-five finish since the Daytona 500, but the Stewart-Haas Racing driver believes his No. 39 car still had enough to compete with runaway winner Jimmie Johnson -- if only he hadn't had to worry about saving fuel in the process.
"We played it safe there for a while," Newman said Tuesday on a conference call with reporters. "And when Jimmie chased me down, he chased me down because I was letting him chase me down. I'm not saying he wouldn't have passed me, but I let him dictate the pace after he got by me instead of me dictating the pace in front of him and running hard. So I think that we were the most competitive that we've been in quite a while, at least on the 39 side at an intermediate race track."
The fifth-place result was Newman's best since he finished in the same position in the season opener, 13 events earlier. It also continues a promising trend on bigger race tracks for the No. 39 car, which has now placed inside the top 10 at Pocono, Charlotte, Darlington, Texas and Fontana. It means this Sunday's Sprint Cup Series event could be ready-made for Newman, and not just because his vehicle's primary sponsor is also backing the race.
Newman has won twice at 2-mile Michigan International Speedway, where he's also finished inside the top 10 in three of his last four starts. Now he hopes to continue SHR's momentum by carrying the speed he showed at Pocono -- and the knowledge he gleaned during a test at the same facility -- over to Michigan, as well as some other large tracks that loom ahead for a driver who maintains hopes of making the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup.
"Just keeping the ball rolling," he said. "I think that there's some things that we learned at our Pocono test that we can absolutely carry over from the Pocono race into Indianapolis going back to Pocono, and as well, I think at places like Michigan that are smooth and have similar asphalt and are really fast as well. So hopefully the things that we've learned will help carry us for the most part through some of those things. It's all about having a fast race car, especially when you go into a big weekend like we have."
The Michigan race is backed by Quicken Loans, a Detroit company that is also a major sponsor on Newman's car. Toward that end, Newman said there's no additional pressure -- take care of things on the track, he added, and everything else falls into place.
Like Pocono, Michigan was resurfaced prior to last season, and now offers a fast, smooth surface. SHR teams also use engines made by Hendrick Motorsports, which finished first and third last weekend with Johnson and Dale Earnhardt Jr., respectively.
In fact, cars powered by Hendrick engines took four of the top five spots at Pocono, given that Newman and fourth-place Tony Stewart cracked the top five together for the first time this season. That's a contrast to the plight of teams powered by Toyota Racing Development, which has throttled back on horsepower in an effort to improve reliability, and for the first time this year failed to place a car inside the top five. Michigan is yet another track where the engine is critical -- so does that means the success in the honeymoon haven will translate to the Irish Hills?
"I think a percentage of it does. ? You look at the Toyota guys, and they are having to pull the pin on a couple of their performance situations and knock back a little bit of their performance at a track that you have to have engine horsepower ? I think that plays into our hand a little bit," said Newman, 18th in points and currently driving on a one-year deal with SHR.
"Michigan, because of the repave, I think is more similar than ever to Pocono, especially like Turn 1 because of the banking and the speed that you carry down into Turn 1 at Pocono. You're not going to be using the brakes near as much as Michigan, if at all. Without a doubt, it's as close as it's ever been. And the way our organization is structured, we are able to focus more on the car side of things, and as long as Hendrick is providing the good power like they are, it plays into our favor."
It all helps build momentum, which Newman believes is a real thing that affects the attitudes of the driver and the team -- particularly going back a track where he's won before.
"When you come off of a good weekend, you have some backbone to your notebook to understand that we know what we are doing with the race car," he said. "We know what we are doing strategy?wise, and we know what we're doing with the tire pressures and everything else to make it make sense so that you can have good finishes; and that I think is the momentum more from an emotional and mental state than it is anything else."
So no, maybe Newman wasn't able to try and chase down Johnson late in last Sunday's race. But he did text the five-time champion afterward to tell him congratulations, and say how good it felt to run up front with him again.
"That's just truly how I feel," he said. "I feel I'm fully capable as a driver, and we just are working on honing in on the package that we need."
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