Ryan Newman could spend a lot of time wondering how Stewart-Haas Racing teammate Tony Stewart went from his summer funk to winning five races in the Chase For The Sprint Cup last year.
But Newman has other things to worry about – such as why his team slid into a downward spiral during the same Chase to finish 10th in the standings.
A team that had an average finish of 13.1 with one win in the first 26 races wound up with an average finish of 16.5 with no wins in the final 10. That might be easier to stomach if Stewart hadn’t gone from a driver averaging 14.2 with no wins prior to the Chase to 6.3 and five wins during it to capture the 2011 Sprint Cup title.
To Newman, the downward spiral for his team started with an eighth-place finish after running out of fuel in the Chase opener at Chicagoland followed by a 25th-place finish at New Hampshire, where he led 62 laps but lost ground late because of a flat tire.
“We just got off,” Newman said. “Over a period of time you struggle and some of our struggles in a round-about way were due to [Stewart’s] success. He wins the first race of the Chase after not winning any [by winning] on fuel and we run out of fuel and finish eighth.
“We got to the next race, we win the pole and lead a bunch of laps and … should have won the race. He wins the race. It was difficult. That was the extra weight on our shoulders that kind of squashed us. We struggled a little bit when we could have succeeded, but then when they succeeded, it was weight we put on our own shoulders.”
Crew chief Tony Gibson said the blame belongs on his own shoulders.
“The wind got took out of our sails,” Gibson said. “We had all the momentum going into the Chase. We were as good as anybody. Our first two races of the Chase didn’t go the way we wanted them to.
“You step back and look at, were we mentally strong enough to accept the two somewhat failures in the Chase, and obviously we weren’t. I didn’t do a good job as a leader making sure when hard times come like that, because luck is going to change. You’re going to have your bad races. I didn’t do a good enough job that we kept our focus and pulled in the right direction.”
What exactly should they have done? Newman and Gibson admit they don’t know how they could have kept everything from falling apart but they obviously should have done something different.
Newman and Gibson are like most people – they don’t know exactly how Stewart pulled off his incredible run over the final 10 weeks of 2011. Not only did Stewart go on a tear, he did so with a crew chief in Darian Grubb who was told in October that he would be released at the end of the season.
“I’m hoping that there’s a book someday that describes it because I think we’ll all be amazed,” Newman said. “I still say it’s chemistry. If you look at Tony and Darian’s relationship before the Chase, during the Chase and after the Chase, you would scratch your head until you had no hair.
“I don’t know how that worked. I don’t know that it was supposed to, but it did.”
Newman said he doesn’t want to be part of any headlines about a Stewart-Haas flop in 2012. He hopes the organization can build on the momentum from the end of last year.
“We definitely failed from a team standpoint in those 10 races,” Newman said about his No. 39 team. “Our chemistry dissolved. We have to control that better. That’s one of the things we have to fix for 2012, hands down.
“We have had some opportunities that have gotten away from us. I won’t say we’ve given races away but we should have been in victory lane more often than we have been. Those are the things we need to fix as well. Those things go hand in hand. When you can’t fix those things and you know that you should and you’re capable and haven’t fixed those things, that makes it really tough to swallow.”
While Stewart had a crew chief change even after he won the title, the Newman-Gibson relationship appears strong.
“[I] have a great relationship with a guy like Tony Gibson and all of a sudden we performance-wise fall down in the Chase and all of a sudden we look back and these two [teammate] guys that are struggling skyrocketed to the top in the first two races,” Newman said.
Gibson believes it’s all in the chemistry. He takes a look at Jimmie Johnson’s five consecutive titles and sees a team that was able to make a good day out of a bad situation.
His Stewart-Haas team hasn’t always been able to do that, especially last season.
“I take full responsibility for it,” Gibson said. “I should have saddled up. I tried to keep my guys pumped up. But they got beat down a couple of races there and it was kind of hard to take.
“I take 100 percent responsibility for it. All we can do is sit down at the end of the year and evaluate what we did and what went wrong. There were a lot of good things that we did that got us there to that point.”
Go Rocketman! Go Smoke!
Go Stewart-Haas Racing!!