Rising Cup star Newman letting his hair down, so to speak

2/21/2008 - NASCAR

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Ryan Newman's one-man stand-up act seems ready to go on tour.

For years, Newman's blue-shirted, No. 12 Penske Racing Alltel Dodge team had fewer funny lines than the famous Las Vegas mute performers, Blue Man Group. That has all changed in 2008, even before he won the 50th edition of Daytona 500 on Sunday.

Although Newman seemed to be shy early in his career in Cup racing, his dry sense of humor was well-known to the team but to few in the garage. The key was to zing him, then he'd zing you back. His zingers have been much easier to find after the biggest win of his career.

In fact, by the time his postrace media tour is over, Ryan Newman will be more famous than the Newman character played by Wayne Knight on "Seinfeld," even though the show is still running in syndication.

You want some "Hello, Newman" moments? You've got 'em. Ryan and his father, Greg, who spotted for him in Sunday's race, had antics that probably would have made a good episode on the series.

How about coming down to Daytona, originally, as fans with little or no budget? They'd have to sleep in their car in a parking lot adjacent to the track. Sunday, Greg radioed Ryan and asked his son whether he remembered this. Ryan said "Yeah, I remember getting up in the middle of the night and having to take a leak and it was raining too hard so I just stayed in the car."

As he didn't go any further with that anecdote, you have to wonder what happened in the car. Guess it's another case of what happens in the car, stays in the car.

That was only the first part of the story. Once they got into the track there was the challenge of getting into the garage to be where the action was, where all the drivers and owners were.

"There were times where we might have bought some construction paper a time or two. There were a couple of times where I had some friends in the garage that might have given me a crew shirt," Ryan said. "But I don't recall those times. You do what you've got to do to get in, man."

Perhaps Kasey Kahne should have had Newman by his side when he tried to enter the drivers' coach lot without his credential this past November at Homestead-Miami Speedway. He could have helped his fellow Dodge Charger driver with his credentials or disarmed the gate guard with a laugh.

Since coming to Daytona for the preseason tests this year, at just about every media gathering or news conference, Newman has been able to shoot out some funny quip that results in laughs.

Newman insists he's the same funny guy who appeared so shy in years past even after his breakthrough year of 2003, when he won more races than any other driver but lost the Cup title to Matt Kenseth.

One reason for the public perception that he was colorless could have been his down years, especially in 2005 and 2006, not to mention an 81-race winless drought. That would be enough to stifle a laugh in any interview. He never lost his sense of humor in the company of friends and family, though.

When a reporter asked Newman about this apparent change in his outward attitude, the driver answered, "You're just coming around."

Husky but athletic, Newman is also comfortable with self-deprecating humor, going back to his early days:

"We stayed up all night racing, came back and had Krispy Kremes for dinner and had Krispy Kremes for breakfast, and that's part of the reason I look the way I do," he said.

Although his engineering degree, from Purdue, is played up in his publicity, Newman freely admits that although he was a 3.84 student in high school, his grade-point average dropped to 2.01 in college. Among other things, he studied time management and problem solving. Even that turned out good for a laugh.

Team owner Roger Penske thinks those classes ought to send his career in another direction -- using his time management skills -- to follow open-wheel Penske driver Helio Castroneves, an Indy 500 winner, to "Dancing with the Stars." Only the self-described "big-boned" Newman retorted: "Ask Krissie [his wife] -- that won't work. I'll make the blooper reels."

Being exposed to Newman's humor has loosened up the 71-year-old billionaire boss who is known for his corporate attire down to knife-edged, ironed, creases in the Penske business shirts. Newman said that he'd seen his boss in jeans at a Dodge function before the race. "I didn't know that Roger owned a pair of jeans."

Ryan Newman

We stayed up all night racing, came back and had Krispy Kremes for dinner and had Krispy Kremes for breakfast, and that's part of the reason I look the way I do.

-- Ryan Newman

When he's not the center of attention, he still finds a way to get it. At a news conference with fellow drivers to show off a new Gillette Young Guns television commercial, Newman hijacked the proceedings from veteran broadcaster Mike Joy, who just stood back and let Newman run the show. Fellow drivers, including Carl Edwards and Denny Hamlin, just watched wide-eyed, probably delighted that they were off the hook, not needed to answer questions.

After watching this year's version, with WWE star John Cena, Newman giddily volunteered how last year's commercial -- showing a few of his rivals with strange Mohawk haircuts, supposedly perpetrated in their sleep by him -- was filmed. He described body doubles whose shaven heads were computer-enhanced and replaced on their driver counterparts' bodies.

Unprepared for the media blitz following his victory, Newman had to buy suits for his New York appearances. His small entourage went to Ralph Lauren where he was measured and fitted with new suits. While waiting for their completion he was asked if he wanted something to drink. When they didn't have his favorite root beer it had to be obtained elsewhere while he waited for the suits to be completed. He got his root beer, the suits and a rather large bill. He complained rhetorically, asking Krissie, "$10,000 dollars for root beer?"

Monday night, the driver took his tour to the David Letterman show. Letterman got the bigger laughs, but Newman's fellow Hoosier has been doing this a lot longer.

Now that he has his racing act together again, all Newman needs are a few more gigs and he might be ready for prime-time comedy.

Lewis Franck is a motorsports contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at nascarespn@earthlink.net