Penske poised to regroup

Jerry Bonkowski
Yahoo! Sports

BROOKLYN, Mich. – Leaving the only NASCAR organization he's ever known may not only be a good thing for Ryan Newman, it may also be a good thing for Penske Racing.

After weeks of rumors, Newman confirmed Friday morning at Michigan International Speedway that he will leave the Penske fold at season's end for Stewart/Haas Racing.

And while Newman's departure may cause The Captain's (as Penske is often referred) ship to sail through some rocky seas, smoother sailing will eventually return.

"Ryan has several dimensions that, frankly, other drivers don't have," said Walt Czarnecki, executive vice president of Penske Corp. "Clearly, his technical ability (and) we all knows he stands on the gas.

"He's an engaging guy. I like Ryan almost as a son, to tell you the truth, because I saw him come out of Purdue. But at the same token, when you've got the surrounding cast in place and that's not changing, it'll make the transition that much more efficient."

Newman has 13 wins and 43 poles in his Cup career, all while driving for Penske. But it's no secret he has been unhappy for much of the last three years due to a lack of performance and success.

Example: He missed the Chase for the Sprint Cup in both 2006 and '07, not to mention failing to win a race in either year.

And while he won the season-opening Daytona 500 to start off this year – the biggest triumph of both his driving and Penske's NASCAR ownership careers – Newman will once again miss the Chase in his final year under the Penske banner.

He's hoping that by leaving for Stewart Haas Racing, the grass – and performance – will be greener on the other side of the hill.

But the Penske group will not fold upon Newman's departure.

"We've been around a long time and we're going to keep going," Czarnecki said.

Penske Racing gets the chance to bring in a new driver to try and reinvigorate what had become a stale team, while potentially also energizing teammates Kurt Busch and Sam Hornish Jr., who, like Newman, have struggled this season.

"You go out and find another teammate that can give just as much to the program as he did," Busch said of Newman. "I had great teammates before, like with Greg Biffle and Matt Kenseth (at Roush Racing). You always look for teammates because that type of camaraderie helps the team continue to chug along."

Newman was a significant part of the reason Busch chose to leave the Roush organization after 2005, replacing the retiring Rusty Wallace. In just over three months, their three-year tenure as teammates will end.

While Busch has known of Newman's plans for a while, Friday's announcement still saddened him somewhat.

"The guy wins the Daytona 500 in February and by August he's going to a different team," Busch said. "It's definitely a quick-pace sport these days."

While Newman is leaving, Busch isn't going anywhere any time soon. The 2004 Cup champion still has "plenty of years" left on his current contract with Penske, a long-running, high-dollar sponsorship with Miller Lite and a still-strong desire to earn Penske his first career Cup championship as a team owner.

"I really enjoy what I've found here at Penske Racing," Busch said. "Are we running to the best of our ability? No, we need to get better, and so this (a fresh start with a new driver) will help that."

Newman joined Penske Racing at the age of 22, fresh out of Purdue University with a degree in vehicle structure engineering in hand. Nine years later, Newman departs his only NASCAR home to date.

So who replaces him?

"You can't," Busch said.

But still, the job has to be done. So who does The Captain look for?

"We've got to get somebody in there that can drive right away," Busch said. "Do you look for a guy with a one- or two-year deal, or do you look for a guy that can sign a long-term type contract? Younger guy, older guy? We've interviewed them all. We're trying to find just the best fit."

Among names mentioned as a potential successor: Penske test driver and part-time Nationwide Series driver David Stremme, Michael McDowell (currently with Michael Waltrip Racing) and Casey Mears, nephew of Indy-car great Rick Mears, a long-time friend, driver and consultant to Penske.

"We're not prepared to disclose who the driver is yet – we're working on a couple of things – but I expect we'll be making an announcement here in the near term," Czarnecki said.

Contrary to Rusty Wallace's comments three weeks ago at Indianapolis that Newman was fired by Penske, Czarnecki tried to convince Newman not to jump to Stewart/Haas.

"There was an attempt," Czarnecki said. "We had good dialogue. Ryan came to us and asked for the opportunity to see what was out there. I mean, that's only fair. He felt he had a better opportunity elsewhere. We had good dialogue and he chose to exercise that option on his part."

When Wallace retired after the 2005 season, Busch inherited just three members from Wallace's team. That won't be the case with Newman's squad. Whoever replaces him will inherit his entire crew, completely intact.

"One of the great things about that No. 12 team is that's essentially been the same crew for Ryan's entire career," Czarnecki said. "While you hate to lose a person of Ryan's capability and talent, you've still got the same surrounding cast.

"It's not going to change the engineering exercise, the pit strategy or the efficiency of the team, overall. We need to do a better job to give our drivers better cars. That process will continue, regardless of who drives the car."

While excited at moving to his new home, Newman isn't going to leave his soon-to-be former home in a lurch. He remains committed to finishing as strongly as possible in 2008.

"As I said to Roger, it's going to be business as usual," Newman said. "(But) that will end at the end of '08."

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