Newman looking like a contender
FAYETTEVILLE, N.C. -- Ryan Newman had a two-handed death grip around a chicken wing as he waited Monday to appear on a special Fort Bragg edition of the Performance Racing Network show "Fast Talk." A quarter of an inch of hot sauce circled his lips like a clown mouth as he savored every bite down to the bone.
"Wings?" I asked the Stewart-Haas Racing driver. "Was about to say you'd lost some weight, gotten on [team owner] Tony Stewart's diet."
Newman, pausing only momentarily before continuing his messy assault, responded, "No. I just got bigger clothes."
Newman, in case you didn't know before now, can be a bit of a smart aleck. The woman who drove him around the military base noticed it right away and she'd never heard of him until two days earlier.
"I really liked that about him," she said.
When asked how his smart-aleck personality blends with that of his sometimes smart-aleck boss, Newman gave an expected smart-aleck response.
"I think my engineering degree [from Purdue] has him scared," Newman said of Stewart, who is tied for the Sprint Cup points lead with Kurt Busch. "He always claims I'm the smarter one, yet he is the one who runs the company. He's got way more things going on than I do, so I think he may be smarter than I am."
Newman was equally quick-witted when asked if it's easier to be a smart aleck when times are as good as they are now -- he became a father four months ago and he's fifth in points heading into Sunday's race at Bristol Motor Speedway -- or as bad as they were much of last season when he failed to make the Chase.
"I don't know," he said. "What defines smart [aleck]? I am who I am. Isn't that right, Country?"
Before his friend responded, Newman deadpanned, "Don't answer that."
Newman didn't mind showing his personality even before NASCAR said it wanted drivers to be more themselves. If there was something he didn't like, such as cars going airborne at Talladega, he let the governing body know it.
He also didn't hold back his feelings when the conversation turned to the failed effort of U.S. Rep. Betsy McCollum to pass an amendment to ban government funds set aside for the Department of Defense to sponsor his No. 39 U.S. Army Sprint Cup car.
"I suggest she come to the racetrack one time and see the influence we have on the fans, the influence we have on the soldiers, and how great we feel it is," Newman said of his relationship with the U.S Army as a recruiting vehicle.
"The high school programs we reach out to and touch, the impact we have and the experiences we have in and out of motorsports is important. What NASCAR has to offer as an outlet for soldiers to enjoy their life away from the job is important, as well."
That was obvious as Newman interacted with soldiers and family members at Fort Bragg in North Carolina. His presence was particularly appreciated by Benny Smith Jr., a 21-year-old senior at the University of Massachusetts.
Smith's father by the same name has served at Fort Bragg for more than 10 years. It was here that Smith Jr. met Dale Earnhardt the day before he was killed at Daytona in 2001. It was here that Smith Jr., as a proponent for improving the lives of military families, realized the importance of the Army's association with NASCAR beyond what happens on the track.
He went so far as to write a letter to Congress defending the Army's decision to spend more than $7 million a year annually in NASCAR sponsorship.
"NASCAR is the most unique marketing and unique tool that the Army has to provide for our soldiers," Smith Jr. said. "It gives the military not only a chance to show what they do on a daily basis to a large audience, but to share what they to do, to give the fans a great eye into what the Army is all about."
I've been with him in different groups of people. Some situations he won't speak. Other situations he'll render everyone on edge with pranks or whatever he's trying to pull off.” -- Jimmie Johnson on Ryan Newman
Newman and others have claimed on numerous occasions that the Army's motorsports program last year generated more than 46,000 qualified leads and more than 1,300 pledges of support from key business and community leaders.
"What we do is important," Newman said.
Smith Jr. was here to support Newman, who promoted the cause on Twitter. Smith Jr. also wanted the driver to autograph the bumper from the U.S. Army car Joe Nemechek wrecked at Charlotte in 2006 (Smith Jr. initially thought the race was in 2007).
"It was 2006," Smith said. "Ryan actually called me on that. He was, 'Yeah, I was right behind him. Had he not blown a right rear tire, he would have won the race.'"
Newman may be a smart aleck, but he is serious about racing. He wants to experience the success of five-time defending champion Jimmie Johnson, whom he beat out for rookie of the year in 2002 when Newman was at Penske Racing.
He wants to be known as more than "Rocketman" for his 43 poles, including the track record at Bristol in 2003 that earned him the nickname.
This could be the year that he becomes a champion. Although Newman has had slightly better starts to a season statistically, he can't remember feeling better about one more than this. Following a 22nd in the Daytona 500 in which he led the most laps (37) and had a chance to win until a late wreck, he put together consecutive fifth-place finishes at Phoenix and Las Vegas.
Vegas was particularly encouraging since the 1.5-mile tracks have been his weakness in recent years.
"Hopefully, we can carry over some of the things we learned," Newman said.
The carryover from last season has Newman in this position. He finished 11th or better in nine of the final 13 races thanks in large part to better communication and more efficiency on pit road, where he had been losing two or more positions consistently.
"Not that it was bad," Newman said of communication. "You just have to take it to the next level if you're going to outdo Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus."
Johnson has taken notice of Newman's turnaround. He was impressed with the way Newman helped Stewart step things up in the Chase last season.
Johnson also knows a thing or two about Newman's tendency to be a smart aleck.
"I've been with him in different groups of people," Johnson said. "Some situations he won't speak. Other situations he'll render everyone on edge with pranks or whatever he's trying to pull off."
What Newman would like to pull off this weekend is a win at a track where he's had more success -- 10 top-10s, including five of the past seven races -- than most give him credit.
But the good news is he doesn't come to Bristol needing a top finish to dig himself out of a hole, as he has had to the past two seasons when his average was 29.6 and 29.3 in the first three events.
"Overall, the team feels stronger than it ever has," Newman said.
Yes, other than being taken away from his plate of hot wings, life is good for Newman.
"I wish it was five degrees warmer right now, but it's all right," he said.
David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.