Commentary

Greg Newman proud to see son Ryan finally arrive

Maybe Ryan Newman had doubts before winning the Daytona 500. It's safe to say proud papa Greg Newman didn't, writes Marty Smith.

Updated: February 20, 2008, 4:44 PM ET
By Marty Smith | ESPN.com

These days they call Greg Newman's boy the Rocket Man, a moniker given him on the basis of his pole-day prowess, his willingness to stand on the gas longer than the next guy. He once ran a 14.90 at Bristol Motor Speedway. That's like riding a bottle rocket in a toilet bowl.

[+] EnlargeRyan Newman
Rusty Jarrett/Getty ImagesMaybe Ryan Newman doubted his abilities before winning the Daytona 500. It's doubtful he worries about his place in the sport now.

But of late it hadn't been so good. Seasons of mediocrity and the failure to win were weighing ever-heavier on Ryan Newman's granite shoulders. It's frustrating racing for the Lucky Dog free pass instead of the win. And though Ryan never showed it, Greg says he's pretty sure Ryan questioned himself. At least a little bit.

Until that final lap of the 50th Daytona 500, Ryan was a forgotten man in the Dale Juniverse. Kurt Busch was the perfect teammate at the perfect time, said team owner Roger Penske, and suddenly Ryan Newman is on your TV more than Simon Cowell.

As Busch shoved him to the lead in Turn 3 of that final lap, Ryan sensed Greg's emotion.

"I heard tears dripping over the radio," Ryan said. "No lie."

By age 4, Ryan was racing. He's never been afraid to push the button. By 5, Greg said, he could take cars apart and put them back together. Greg always told him to hug his race car, give it a kiss each night before bed. Respect it and it'll reciprocate.

Father and son would race slot cars in the basement, and Ryan always took the high side. Fitting. That was his winning choice Sunday evening, too.

Ryan has always been intelligent. In high school his GPA was 3.8. In college, as a professional racing future became more feasible by the year, the grades slipped. His GPA upon graduation was 2.01. Too much racing. He was on academic probation entering the final semester of his senior year, but his grades during his final semester pulled him out of probation and across the graduation stage.

"Only needed a 2.0," he said with a chuckle Monday.

He can laugh at it now, but Greg said it still irks Ryan that Purdue University didn't acknowledge his racing aspirations during his collegiate career. His parents insisted he earn a college degree before he could chase racing. It was in his contract, basically, Greg said.

Ryan, Greg said, went to counselors to request schedule leniency and assistance, like that given to football and basketball players. No dice.

"Purdue didn't recognize him as a racer," Greg said. "Now they do."

Shocking.

"He doesn't talk about it, but I have ill feelings about it and I think he does, too," Greg said.

Greg Newman is an emotional man whose love and respect for his son are readily obvious. He wept Monday morning while recounting Ryan's Daytona 500 victory and the winding road it took to get there.

When Ryan was a teenager, father and son came to Daytona often. They always had tickets. They'd scream through states at record speeds, the father says, keeping a running tally of which states they'd clear the fastest. They ate Krispy Kremes for breakfast and dinner. They slept in the Cracker Barrel parking lot down the street from Daytona International Speedway.

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They'd sit in the grandstands and dream. Someday…

But the grandstands weren't the goal. Ryan was a driver. He wanted to mingle with other drivers. So they went to the Winn-Dixie on Halifax Road and bought some construction paper, some glue and a sprinkle or two of glitter to create fake garage passes.

"You have to make your own opportunities sometimes," Ryan said, grinning.

"If you were good enough you could sneak in, figure out what the credentials actually looked like, then go back and make your own -- and if you were really cool you had a lanyard. You could hide your construction paper, then."

Times sure have changed, huh?

"Yeah, ask Kasey [Kahne]," Newman quipped.

Hilarious. Who knew the guy was so witty?

When Ryan was down these past couple of years, he took to the dirt for solace. He and Greg went back and ran some open-wheel dirt events. Ryan won. Confidence intact.

It's safe to assume his confidence is higher than ever. Newman was get-your-first-car giddy Monday. He recalled looking on admiringly during the Daytona 500 drivers meeting as former 500 winners like Mario Andretti, A.J. Foyt and Cale Yarborough were honored. Little did he know that six hours later he'd stand among them as peers.

That evening, after the race, Richard Petty came by to congratulate him. Just smiled at him. Hugged him. Father and son mentioned several times how special that was.

"You win this race, you're a racer," Greg said, tears sliding down his cheeks.

And then the thought was interrupted when Greg's phone rang. Once. Twice. The ring tone was a familiar one, the theme song from Sanford and Son.

It was Ryan.

"Ryan owns an old Sanford and Son truck -- that's why I call him 'Big Dummy,'" Greg said.

Big Dummy won the Great American Race.

Now those are real credentials … on to some mail:

Marty,

Why the heck was Roger Penske wearing a Hendrick Motorsports hat in Victory Lane?

-- JB, Ottumwa, Iowa

Great question, JB. And the answer is pretty cool. After the race, Penske mentioned how much he admires Rick Hendrick, and that he'd called Hendrick earlier in the week to offer congratulations at how dominant they'd been and how impressive it was that they'd landed and successfully integrated Earnhardt into an already impressive fold.

During that conversation, Penske told Hendrick that if he got to Victory Lane he wanted "one of those H hats." Sure enough …

"He brought one down to me," Penske said. "Maybe that's the good luck call I had, when I talked to him earlier."

Hey Mart Dog,

I sure miss you on the NASCAR page. This past weekend was a barn burner! The question whether the COT could give us a good race is over -- I think it has been a while since I sat up on the edge of my seat for a finish. Except maybe last year trying to will Mark Martin across the finish line first.

You really have to feel for Tony Stewart, but I think he even acknowledges that he made a huge mistake when he pulled down in front of Kyle Busch thinking he could push him along for the win. Any rumblings of a conspiracy that Kyle backed off because he wants to be the first Toyota driver in the winner's circle? I suspect there have been some.

Still it is good to see the Dodge program coming along, too. There were a lot of Dodges up there at the end. Only Junior was anywhere near the front for the bow-tie brigade, and his pit miscue at the end spelled disaster. It should be a good year.

-- Gary Crumrine, hometown unknown

Anybody who thinks Kyle Busch backed off needs to back off the wacky stuff, Gary. The boy only knows one way to race -- flat on the mat. As for Stewart, he admitted making a poor choice when he dove low to pick up Busch's push. That ultimately opened the door for the heavenly push.

Dodge certainly made a statement in the 500. But don't forget -- Daytona is plate racing. The true merit of Dodge's progress will be known in two weeks, after Vegas, after two high-speed downforce tracks are completed. Newman and Kurt Busch are always stout at speedways, just haven't won until now.

And then there's the Daytona 500 winner statistics Newman faces: In 50 years, the 500 winner has gone on to championship bliss just eight times.

I doubt he cares much about that at this moment, though.

Good morning Marty,

On Wind Tunnel last night, Darrell Waltrip stated to Mr. Penske the Dodges were terrible all week at Daytona and were given a different gear after the Duels. Seven Dodges finished in the top 11 in the 500.

All we have ever been told is the COT was introduced for safety and to make the cars equal. Allowing one manufacturer to run a different gear is not an equal playing field. My opinion is that the COT was introduced so NASCAR can more easily determine outcomes of races.

Oh, and by the way, why isn't anyone else reporting the gear change for Dodge? Mr. Penske did not deny what DW said to him during the show.

-- Mike Holland, Hooks, Texas

One Dodge crew chief told me that's inaccurate, Mike. I'm told NASCAR changed the gear rule after the Daytona preseason test, not just before the Duel.

The rule, according to the crew chief, who chose not to be named, was a 3.70 or a 3.75 gear, which was changed to a 3.64 or 3.70. The rule was changed, the crew chief said, because the 3.75 gear created too much RPM for the engines to tolerate. Had NASCAR not changed it, the crew chief said, "half the field would have blown up."

Marty,

I'm an IndyCar fan and never really cared much for NASCAR, but I've always followed Sam Hornish's career. On Fox they seemed to make a big deal of Sam's effort in the Daytona 500. He never contended. Why is this such a great effort?

-- Barry Simmons, Terre Haute, Ind.

Jeez, Barry … Are your expectations high enough, man? Hornish was great. He ran in the top 10 all day -- and the Jimmie Johnson wreck wasn't his fault. The fact that he didn't end up in the fence is impressive enough. His only mistake all day was a slide through his pit box that resulted, he said, in about 15 lost positions and likely cost him a top-10 finish in the big show.

All that, and he's a brand-new father. Not a bad start to 2008 for young Sam.

"While I was baby-sitting my daughter, I actually watched the whole race all over again," Hornish said Monday. "I was really happy how everything went. My hands were sweating with 20 laps remaining, and I had already been in it -- lived through it. That's how exciting it was for me."

Hey Marty,

Who ultimately decides to get rid of a crew chief? Does it boil down to the driver, or the owner, with driver opinion included? And vice versa when hiring someone that's been fired? Thanks man.

-- John, Madison, Ala.

It's the owner's decision, John, but typically the driver has input. I remember last year, though, how ticked Greg Biffle was when Pat Tryson was let go from Roush Fenway Racing. Sometimes the owner overrules. It is ultimately his or her choice.

That's my time, y'all. Hug your young'ns.

Marty Smith is a contributor to ESPN's NASCAR coverage. He can be reached at ESPNsider@aol.com.