Newman the forgotten Indiana son
CARMEL, Ind. -- The look on Ryan Newman's face was priceless as his wife issued a request in a soft, sweet voice from the rear corner of the Office Depot before Wednesday night's autograph session.
"You better be nice," Krissie said. "The guys at the front of the line came here at 4 o'clock in the morning."
Yep, there's the look again, a sheepish grin, the corners of Newman's lips ever so curled and the eyes piercing as though he was searching for something sarcastic to say but didn't want to go that far.
"You were sound asleep at that point in time," Krissie continued.
Newman, still with the look, replied, "Snoring too, right?"
"Right," Krissie said. "Now be nice." It's hard to imagine Newman being rude. If you held a vote in the Sprint Cup garage, he'd be near the top of the list for nicest driver, and he'd likely get bonus points for being a dog lover extraordinaire.
"Yeah, but sometimes he rushes through when he's signing stuff," Krissie reminded.
Newman continued the look but never argued the point. He doesn't make a big deal about much of anything, at least in a loud way. He is sometimes so quiet that you don't know he's there.
Maybe that's why he isn't mentioned with fellow native sons Tony Stewart and Jeff Gordon when it comes to being the sentimental favorite for Sunday's Allstate 400 at the Brickyard at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
Thursday's front of the Indianapolis Star sports section is a perfect example. At the bottom of the page is a picture of Stewart and Gordon with mention of their Indiana heritage -- Stewart is from Columbus and Gordon grew up in Pittsboro after moving from California.
But nothing for Newman, who was born and raised in South Bend and went to college at Purdue.
"Maybe I'm not as popular," Newman said with almost the same look he gave Krissie. "Tony is a two-time champion. Jeff is a four-time champion. I'm not an anytime champion."
Admittedly, South Bend is a bit farther from the famed Speedway -- 138 miles to be exact -- than Columbus (46 miles) and Pittsboro (23). But Newman still should be counted as one of the Indiana Gang.
"I don't know," Krissie said. "He really wants to win here, but he's not advertised as Tony or Jeff. He's kind of a quiet guy in all aspects of the media. That could be a part of it."
Those who stood in line for Newman's autograph, many for over 12 hours, don't understand this snub either.
"I guess they don't count him as the same," said Rachael Tapy, a 33-year-old who arrived at the session in a black Mitsubishi Lancer covered in Newman stickers, some from his days in the No. 12 at Penske Racing and some with the No. 39 of Stewart-Haas (his current ride).
"But we love him."
Dreams farther south
Jeff Munden was among those who arrived here at 4 a.m. His wife came with him, and she is a Kevin Harvick fan judging by her Harvick T-shirt and cap.
"I want to see an Indiana boy win this race," Munden said.
In truth, it probably doesn't mean as much to Newman as it does to Stewart and Gordon to win at Indy. He didn't grow up dreaming of driving open-wheel cars at 230 mph around this 2.5-mile landmark.
"If an Indy car is what it took to be at the next rung on the ladder to get to stock car racing, that is what I would have had to do, not necessarily what I would have wanted to do," Newman said.
That doesn't mean Newman doesn't have great appreciation for the track. He remembers vividly going there as a kid to watch his first IndyCar race. He recalls with passion sneaking in years later to meet NASCAR stars the first time they raced in 1994.
Indianapolis in general has been special to Newman's career. His first major USAC win came across town at O'Reilly Raceway Park when he drove his No. 39 Midget car to victory the night before the Indianapolis 500.
"It was like winning the Daytona 500 at the time," said Newman, who returned to the No. 39 this year after seven seasons in the 12. "There was a huge crowd, and it was a very special moment for me and my entire family because on that night I was the best driver in Indianapolis."
Newman is reliving some of those memories this weekend. He was scheduled to compete in a Silver Crown race at O'Reilly on Thursday against some of the current stars. He was doing it for fun, or as he said, "for me."
But Newman's main goal this weekend is to win on Sunday. He doesn't really care about all the hoopla surrounding Stewart and Gordon, first and second in the point standings, for "coming home."
If he got that kind of publicity, he would be miserable.
"Absolutely," Krissie said.
Newman smiled. He smiles a lot these days, a lot more than he did a year ago when the only thing he knew about his future was it wouldn't be at Penske Racing.
"I had a lot of sleepless nights," Krissie said. "He slept fine, but I was very nervous. It worked out. You have to have faith."
Newman actually had a few nervous moments then. This was his future. He had to choose between Stewart-Haas (at that time a lower-tier team called Haas CNC Racing), Joe Gibbs Racing and Richard Childress Racing.
He eventually narrowed it to SHR and JGR. He picked Stewart-Haas, an organization without a tradition for winning or even finishing in the top 20.
"Faith," Krissie said. "Just a lot of faith in Tony [Stewart] and what he was doing."
It was the perfect choice. Newman, after a near-disastrous start, is seventh in points and having his best season since 2003, when he won eight races.
He has found a family atmosphere that he had early in his career at Penske. He has found an owner who shares many of the same hobbies -- fishing and hunting top the list -- and a big heart for giving.
"Tony is like a big brother to Ryan and me," Krissie said.
He's just not a big brother she would set up on a blind date.
"I would never do that," she said with a laugh. "I like my friends too much,"
Back home in Indiana
The autograph session was only minutes from beginning when Newman was asked if there were plans for him and Krissie to become parents. Of a child, that is. They have more dogs than most people have relatives.
"How do you make one?" Newman said with a straight face.
Ryan and Krissie may be the most normal couple in the garage. Their idea of a perfect date is a lazy night on the couch watching television with all their canine children around.
They do this at their home just outside of Charlotte, N.C. That is home. There are no plans to one day return to Indiana and build a house, as Stewart has in Columbus.
But Indiana definitely is a big part of Newman. It's where he developed his family values and became infatuated with the outdoors to the point that Krissie had to set up a separate room for all his fishing gear.
"It's a simple life," Newman said. "That's kind of me."
He doesn't get all sentimental about this weekend, as one might think. He doesn't invite everybody on the family tree to attend.
Yes, a win on Sunday would be one of the greatest moments of his career, right up there with winning the 2008 Daytona 500, his only win since 2005. But it has more to do with his desire to succeed than with being from Indiana.
"To me, that sentimental reason doesn't mean so much," Newman said. "I've always said it's not where you're from, it's who you are. I don't root for the Colts because I'm from Indiana. People from Chicago shouldn't have to root for the Bears. They should root for whoever they feel the most connected with.
"It's not all about geography."
Don't tell that to the hundred or so people who stood in the rain waiting for his autograph. They made no secret that this Indiana native is their sentimental favorite.
"Just be nice," Krissie reminded one more time. "Four a.m. That's 12 hours of standing out there in the rain. They didn't even get doughnuts and coffee."
Again, Newman's look was priceless.
David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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