Ryan Newman: Still seeking opportunity for 2022, but racing future remains in limbo

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AVONDALE, Ariz. — Ryan Newman was noncommittal about his racing plans for next year or whether Sunday’s season finale would mark his 725th and final NASCAR Cup Series start, saying “I hope not. I don’t know, but I hope not,” to kick off a free-wheeling media session after Saturday’s qualifying run.

Newman is rounding out his third and final full season with Roush Fenway Racing during NASCAR’s Championship Weekend at Phoenix Raceway. The team’s composition will change next year, with Brad Keselowski coming to the team as a part-owner and the driver of the flagship No. 6 Ford. Chris Buescher remains as the organization’s second driver, piloting the No. 17 Mustang.

RELATED: Weekend schedule | At-track photos: Phoenix

That’s left Newman in limbo as he closes his 20th full season at the Cup Series level. Roush Fenway president Steve Newmark indicated earlier this year that Newman was under consideration for a part-time ride should funding allow.

“If it’s a winning opportunity, it doesn’t matter if it’s a part-time, full-time or one-race deal,” said Newman, who is set to start 19th in Sunday’s race. “That’s what I want to do. I want to get back in Victory Lane.”

Christian Petersen | Getty Images
Christian Petersen | Getty Images

If it is a final Cup Series appearance, Newman balked at calling it an official farewell. But it would mark the ending of a successful career for the 43-year-old driver, one that included 18 Cup Series wins, a Daytona 500 triumph in 2008 and 51 pole positions — a nod to his mastery of qualifying, especially early in his career.

And it would come at Phoenix, where Newman made his first Cup Series start in a one-off effort for Team Penske in 2000 and where he recorded his most recent Cup victory back in 2017 in his final year with Richard Childress Racing.

“It’s emotional, but it’s ironic at the same time because I know my first start was here 21 years ago,” Newman said. “So to come back 21 years later and have my last contracted driving start means something. Don’t know that it means much, but I’m not announcing any kind of retirement or anything like that. I really don’t have anything on paper for next year right now.”

Contract uncertainty notwithstanding, the 2021 campaign has been a rocky road for Newman on the track. He sits 28th in Cup Series points with just two top-five finishes this year, and he’s been involved in cautions in each of the last four races.

Newman was quick to dispute any assertion that his driving skills had diminished, whether that be attributed to his age or the serious injuries that he suffered in a crash in last year’s Daytona 500.

“I still feel like 100% physically,” Newman said. “… When you get my age, you don’t know if you need glasses. My vision’s great, my reaction time’s great, my physical part of it, everything is great. Everybody can talk what they want about what happened at Daytona, but in the end, we go play a game of racquetball, I can still kick your ass. All that’s there, but perception of that, I don’t know is because of what’s happened, because of my age.”

If Sunday is indeed a Phoenix bookend to his Cup Series debut, Newman says he’s intent on trying to enjoy the moment without letting any pressure — real or perceived — affect it.

“I’ve joked several times being a (Purdue) Boilermaker that pressure just blows (expletive) up,” Newman said. “That’s what it does, and it’s never usually good. Some people can perform under pressure, and it’s a tongue-in-cheek kind of pressure. In the end, you should just be out here enjoying this. We’re not talking about all the other situations that are messed up in the world, we’re talking about getting to do what we love. So I’m happy and I still enjoy doing what I’m doing, but in the end, I can’t be happy running 25th or qualifying 30th or racing for a lucky dog and finally getting it. That just doesn’t do it for me.”