And in the end, no matter how well he ran at Daytona, the result was pure frustration. It doesn't matter that Newman's finish, 21st, was his best since he won the Great American Race in 2008.
We've been able to get four top-five finishes in our last four trips to Phoenix. So I'm really looking forward to getting back there this weekend after a really long Speedweeks.
-- RYAN NEWMANThe bottom line is, his average finish since he last visited Daytona's Victory Lane is 28.25. Newman came from two laps down to get into the top 10 with less than 40 laps to go Monday night in prime time. But then he was swept into a melee he had nothing to do with causing (watch).
It leaves Newman seriously pining to get to this weekend's venue, Phoenix International Raceway -- a place much more suited to the driver once known as the "Rocketman" for his qualifying prowess.
"Although Daytona is our biggest race," Newman said, "I think most people will tell you the season really starts with the second race, just because it seems to be a better gauge in determining what you have compared to other teams."
Newman certainly hopes so. He won his first race for Stewart-Haas Racing at Phoenix. That came nearly two years ago, in April 2010. But since then, he's scored three fifth-place finishes at PIR, so it underscores just what Sunday's race can mean to his season.
"Phoenix is a special track to me," Newman said. "It's where I started my Sprint Cup career. It's the first track I raced on in NASCAR, so it's an important place. And, it's a special track for our team, too, because it's where we were able to get our first [SHR] win, back in 2010.
"It's just a track I have always liked from my USAC days. Back then, Phoenix was the place to race, so it's kind of like a track that's the backbone of how I'm used to racing. We have run so well there the past few years, and we seem to be in tune with the race track, so we're looking forward to continuing our streak of solid finishes there."
Newman has four Phoenix poles, including three consecutive top starting spots for the fall race, from 2002-04. The track was reconfigured in 2011, but Newman -- who cut his teeth at the Arizona desert mile in USAC open-wheel cars -- likes it no less.
Despite starting 30th in his first effort on Phoenix's new surface, Newman navigated his way to fifth at the finish. His four consecutive top-five finishes at Phoenix puts him in perfect position to get his race for the Chase for the Sprint Cup field, which he's made two of the past three years while driving for SHR, back on track.
Newman and crew chief Tony Gibson used a bold pit call in their win, which also was Gibson's first at SHR. Newman was running fifth when the caution flag waved on Lap 372, setting up a green-white-checkered finish.
After an animated discussion on the radio as Newman and Gibson debated their options, the two decided to pit for right-side tires only while many of the frontrunners opted instead for four fresh tires.
Newman returned to the track in second place and restarted beside four-time Cup Series champion Jeff Gordon on the inside line. At the green, Newman drove past Gordon, took the lead and logged his 14th career Cup Series victory (watch), his first since winning the 2008 Daytona 500 -- a span of 77 races.
The fact that Newman's won only one other race since joining Stewart-Haas in 2009 makes him even more anxious to unload in Phoenix.
"We go to Phoenix with a good setup, and that shows by our finishes there," Newman said. "And luckily the changes to the track didn't change that for us, last fall. It's hard to say why we've done so well there, but it's one of my favorite tracks, and that definitely is a factor."
Phoenix could be called similar to New Hampshire Motor Speedway, where Newman has the past two poles and his most recent win.
"I guess I would kind of lump Phoenix into the success that we've had on short tracks," Newman said. "The combination of Tony Gibson, the No. 39 team and me have really been able to hit on something at the tracks a mile and under -- like Martinsville and Bristol. And Phoenix is flat like New Hampshire, which is another track where we've had success.
"In my opinion, the driver has a little more of an impact on the end result at short tracks than some of the bigger race tracks, and I like that. The more the drivers are involved, the more I think you get to race and, from that standpoint, I think it's more fun."
Newman and Gibson -- two men with a love for the outdoors -- have a great affinity away from the race track and that helps their chances to get some momentum going this weekend.
"Tony has some great setups with our short-track program -- I enjoy them, he enjoys them and we just go out there and have some fun," Newman said. "We've had a good car each time we've been to Phoenix. Gibson is a great fan of Phoenix and short-track racing, and he's got a great understanding of the race car there and what I like, and that makes a big difference, obviously, for me.
"We've been able to get four top-five finishes in our last four trips to Phoenix. So I'm really looking forward to getting back there this weekend after a really long Speedweeks." NASCAR.COM
JUST FOR YOU SCHMOOPY!!!!
"Take this as your warning: I gave you guys 14 weeks without me. I'll be back and ready at Daytona to kick your #### again," Smoke