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Monster Energy NASCAR Cup

Rocketman Ryan Newman on Path of Revival

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Round one of the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs comes to a close this weekend at Charlotte Motor Speedway’s Roval road course. While we’ve seen drivers such as Brad Keselowski, Kyle Larson and Martin Truex Jr. soar to new heights over the last two races, the argument can be made that the most shocking performance as of late has come from Ryan Newman.

Newman, who many people doubted from the start of the 2019 Playoffs, has essentially been the poster-boy for consistency this season. In fact, the No. 6 team have finished 15th or better in 18 races, including 11 top-10 finishes and two top-fives through 28 events.

As Newman and Roush Fenway Racing begin their first championship campaign since the 2017 season, it’s difficult not to attribute a good portion of Newman’s success to new crew chief, Scott Graves. After sitting atop the pit box of Daniel Suarez for two years at Joe Gibbs Racing, Graves reunited with team owner Jack Roush this season.

Graves previously worked for Roush as both a crew chief and race engineer from 2012-15. In that time, Graves propelled Chris Buescher to a NASCAR Xfinity Series championship in 2015. Astonishingly, Graves then made the transition to Joe Gibbs Racing and won a second consecutive Xfinity title with Suarez.

While Graves has compiled quite the resume in NASCAR’s lower division, this on-track success hasn’t quite translated to the Cup Series  — until this year. In Graves’ stint with Joe Gibbs Racing, he was only able to guide the driver from Monterrery, Mexico to four top-fives and 21 top-10 finishes collectively. With the  41-year-old driver, Graves has recorded two top-fives and 11 top-10s.

What makes Newman different from drivers like Buescher and Suarez? Experience. This season marks Newman’s 20th go-around in NASCAR’s premier series and since his first race at Phoenix in 2000, the driver from Indiana has developed quite the reputation – tough as nails and unrelenting. If you ask anyone in the garage area who the toughest driver to pass on track is, it would most likely be a unanimous answer in Newman.

With a mix of veteran knowledge, grit and competitive edge, the pairing of Graves and Newman makes total sense and it’s no surprise the two are feeding off of each other’s successes. Newman matched his season-best finish this season last Saturday at Richmond International Raceway, taking home the fifth-spot.

While indeed trending in the right direction and sitting comfortably above the points cutoff by 26 points, Newman will have his work cut out for him moving forward.

In the inaugural race at the Roval last season, Newman drove himself to a respectable 11th place finish. This would be fine if the drivers currently sitting 13th through 15th in the standing did not have the results they had in the same race. Clint Bowyer, Alex Bowman and Kurt Busch all placed inside of the top-five. However, all three drivers have been wildly inconsistent recently.

This can seem like a daunting task for the Rocketman, but it’s also worth nothing that Aric Almirola and William Byron (who sit 11th and 12th in the standings) placed 19th and 34th at the North Carolina road course last year. Although, all of these finishes should be taken with a grain of salt. The Cup Series has only seen one race at the Roval and there really is no way of predicting who will excel and who will falter. In other words, expect the unexpected — but if anyone can capitalize, it’s Newman.

Assuming Newman can take this 26 point lead to the round of 12, this is where things can get really tricky. Looking ahead to Talladega Superspeedway, Dover International Speedway and Kansas Speedway, the driver of the No. 6 may need to replicate a top-five for the second week in a row to provide momentum.

Of the three upcoming tracks, Newman’s best finish this season came at Talladega with a seventh-place finish. He finished 18th at Dover and 23rd at Kansas – his worst statistical track on the circuit. While his career numbers aren’t terrible at the trio of tracks (a combined 10 wins from 2000-19), his stat line over the last five races at these tracks is not stellar.

At Talladega, Newman has one top-five and three top-10 finishes over the last five races, with an m average finish of 13.6 (ninth-best among active drivers). Dover has been a decent  track for the 41-year-old driver, who’s driven his way to one top-five and one top-10 in the same five race span. As mentioned, Kansas is Newman’s worst statistical track and with no top-fives and no top-10s to speak of in the last five races; it is worth nothing that in 27 races, he’s got one win, three top-fives and seven top-10s.

It very well could be an uphill battle from here for Newman. But one thing is certain – he will fight tooth and nail for every position and this team will not go down without a fight. The Roush Fenway Racing No. 6 team is certainly on a hot streak and they’ll have to continue this stretch if they want to keep their championship hopes alive through the round of 12.

EMAIL COLE AT: colecusumano88@gmail.com

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Cole Cusumano

Cole Cusumano is currently attending The Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication for a degree in sports journalism. In addition to providing content for POPULAR SPEED, he worked for Pit Notes at ISM Raceway. He is also currently writing for the school's magazine "The Cronkite Journal", which is affiliated with Arizona PBS. Cole was born and raised in Staten Island, N.Y. but has been living in Arizona for 13 years.