Thursday, September 19, 2013

Checkered Past: 2002 – the year Ryan Newman became "Rocket Man"

Ryan Newman earned the 50th pole of his Cup Series career this past July at Indianapolis Motor Speedway – a milestone he had been waiting for since September 2011, and he reached it at a fitting place: his home track, the mecca of auto racing, the one and only Indy. Newman went on to win the historic 20th running of the race most often referred to as the Brickyard 400, the 17th win of his career, and went on to qualify – although somewhat controversially – for the 2013 Chase for the Sprint Cup. Newman’s best finish in the Chase is sixth, which he’s accomplished three times, the first of which was in 2002 – the year he became “Rocket Man.”

Borland and Newman in 2004
Credit: NASCAR/Sherryl Creekmore
Newman earned his first career pole during a seven-race stint for Penske Racing in 2001, in just his third Cup Series race (he also competed in one race in 2000). From the beginning, Newman was paired with crew chief Matt Borland, and the duo became one of the most potent qualifying forces in NASCAR. In their first full-time season in 2002, the Newman-Borland team racked up one win, 22 top-10 finishes and six poles (at the time a rookie record), finished sixth in points and captured the Rookie of the Year award. Newman became just the second rookie to win the All-Star Race, then known as The Winston.

The Newman-Borland duo lasted until the end of the 2006 season, when Borland left Penske for Michael Waltrip Racing. During their five full-time seasons together, however, they amassed quite a qualifying record. In addition to the six poles in 2002, they added an astonishing 11 poles in 2003, nine in 2004 and eight more in 2005. In 2006, Newman went winless for the first time as a full-time driver and collected only two poles, and with new crew chief Mike Nelson in 2007 won five poles and no races.

Newman and Borland in 2012
Credit: Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images for NASCAR
Newman’s tenure with Penske Racing ended in 2008, with just one win and one pole for the season, then he moved to Stewart-Haas Racing in 2009. Teamed with veteran crew chief Tony Gibson over most of the next four seasons, Newman won three times and earned six more poles. The addition of a third car to the SHR stables – Danica Patrick in 2013 – reunited Newman and Borland, now with SHR, near the end of the 2012 season.
 
The duo has won only one pole and one race so far this season, but they may very well have been the most important – and most enjoyable – wins they’ve had together.

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