Racing Beat: Father-son combo

Ryan Newman celebrates winning the 50th running of the Daytona 500.

When the 2008 NASCAR Sprint Cup season began, it was widely assumed that the championship would be settled among the Hendrick Motorsports team of Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Casey Mears. And while that could still be the case, it has become obvious there are other drivers determined to compete.

Enter Ryan Newman, a man largely forgotten in the last few seasons but who made a major statement with a victory in the season-opening Daytona 500.

Not only did he outshine the “superteam” at Hendrick, the driver of Penske Racing’s Alltel-sponsored car also proved that Dodge could be a factor in the era of the Car of Tomorrow.

“I think we definitely had a great show in the 500,” Newman said. “Six of the top eight were Dodges. Some of that is due to racing, some is due to preparation. I think with the [Car of Tomorrow] this year, we have a greater chance of all cars being the same manufacturer-wise. It’s just a matter of the team and how much horsepower you have underneath the hood that can make a difference in any given weekend.”

Newman also got a boost from his spotter as the race wound down. His spotter for the last three years, by the way, is also his father.

“Basically in about three years of spotting, I have grown to listen to his tone, what it means,” Newman says. “So that’s good or bad. But when he changed his tone down the back straightaway, I knew that he knew that we had a great shot.

“To have my dad be there, be part of the team, to hear his vocals over the radio, the enthusiasm, the emphasis that he shared, it proved that it’s a dream come true for him as well.”

When Newman was growing up, his dad owned an auto repair shop called G&D Auto Service, which he has since sold.

Ryan Newman learned from his dad, working on racecars together, he says. “I’m extremely grateful for all the things that he’s taught me.”

To win the most prestigious event in stock car competition, some luck is needed, but Newman didn’t require much. His Dodge was strong wire-to-wire, and he was able to avoid mishaps on the track.

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“I’d say it was pretty flawless,” Newman says.

Newman realized the race was his when Tony Stewart started to pull down on the backstretch to get a push from his teammate Kyle Busch. But Newman got his own push. “Obviously Kurt helped,” Newman says, “and I have to be extremely grateful for his push, his ultimate teamwork, lack of selfishness, that gave me the opportunity to get the win.”

In years past winning the Daytona 500 simply meant having the honor of taking the checkered flag in what has come to be known as “The Great American Race.” These days, it also means the winner is a pop culture star.

The winner always gets an invitation to appear on The Late Show With David Letterman, but that just scratches the surface.

“It’s fun,” Newman says. “It’s unique. [The highlight] is definitely the Letterman show. I don’t think I got in a single question, but I did try to answer everything he asked. It’s an honor to grow up watching, whether it’s Regis and Kelly, the Letterman show, all the other things we do, all the people that you see, to know that most of the reporters have interviewed A.J. Foyt or Richard Petty or Dale Earnhardt at some point. To be part of the driving group that represents NASCAR is a dream come true for me.”

The victory also came with an added bonus – a big one. Robert Nardelli, CEO of Chrysler, put up a $1 million bonus if a Dodge pilot won the race.

“When I saw (Nardelli) in Victory Lane with his smile, it was fairly equal to Roger Penske’s,” Newman says. “I was glad to deliver that to Dodge as well as all the other people at Chrysler and everybody else that had an influence on making my Dodge as sharp as it was.”

Still, having never won the Daytona 500 before, Newman didn’t realize just what a feat he had accomplished. Now he’s starting to, especially since it was the golden anniversary of the event.

“I’ve always said it’s an honor to compete in that race and compete at the level that we’re at,” he says. “But the 50th running, I think I totally underestimated the significance of that history and the golden anniversary.”

If there is a downside to winning the 500 it’s that the car must be given to the Daytona Experience museum to be placed on display for the remainder of the season. Newman says it was a price well worth paying.

“When I had the opportunity to see the car in the Daytona 500 Experience, that was special in itself,” he says. “The act of giving away the keys wasn’t that difficult. I know Roger Penske is more than happy to build at least one more extra car after giving that one away.

“I remember, as well, going in for media events earlier in the week, seeing Kevin Harvick’s car in there, kind of mentally picturing mine replacing it.”

Newman has since turned his attention to winning a Sprint Cup championship. If he does, however, he’ll know a win in the season opener helped get him there.

“I’m 30 years old, and Roger has been trying to win this race for 30 years,” Newman says. “I can only imagine what it means to him. It’s my seventh or eighth attempt. It’s super special to me. I know after watching and seeing firsthand Dale Earnhardt’s experience, Darrel Waltrip’s experience trying to get that first victory, it’s truly amazing. I don’t think you can really put into words how much it means to one person or one team other than the fact that you just try to make the best of it.”