- Mark Ashenfelter, NASCAR
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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- A year after many thought he'd dominate NASCAR's top division, Ryan Newman's still looking for that perfect season. Or at least as close to one as a driver can expect over the course of 36 races.
Perfection isn't possible, the engineer in Newman tells him that much. But that doesn't stop him from trying.
And despite finishing a disappointing seventh in points after clawing his way into the Chase for the Nextel Cup, Newman knows he ran better than that finish would indicate.
Now the trick is running better over the first 26 races and also having a bit more luck in the final 10.
"Aside from finishes we were the most dominant car in the last 10 races," Newman said. "We led the most laps. We led a lap in every race except Darlington where I was getting ready to pass Kurt Busch and blew a right front tire. We had a good, dominant race car the last 10 races.
"I crashed the car at Kansas. We had a hose clamp break at Loudon. We dominated [and won at] Dover. We were en route to winning at Homestead. We came from a lap down three times at Darlington to come back on the lead lap only to blow a motor when we were running fifth. So many things happened to us in those last 10 races.
"Talladega [where Newman was caught up in a wreck] is a crap shoot for anybody except [Dale Earnhardt Jr.]," he said. "We put it together sometimes and struggle to put it together sometimes. That's the part we've got to work on, the part we struggle at."
Still, Newman refuses to consider 2004 a disaster. Sure he didn't lead the series in wins as he'd done a year earlier, but he did win at Michigan in June along with the September race at Dover. He's well aware there are plenty of competitors who'd be thrilled with a two-win season.
And while Newman's far from thrilled with his season, he knows there were enough positives to build upon in '05.
"Last year was the first year we didn't struggle through April and May. We basically struggled last year through the last 10 races," Newman said. "We had our bad points throughout the season, but we haven't put together a complete 36-race dominance -- which we need to do to be able to be contenders, similar to what [Matt] Kenseth did two years ago or what [Jimmie] Johnson almost did last year with the exception to some of his engine failures.
"That's just what we have to do. We've looked super strong at some points. I think we had five top-five finishes in a row and lots of other great things happen to us, but you have to put 36 together."
To do that, Newman will have to fight through the problems that always seem to bite him at Daytona and Talladega, where his luck has been abysmal. Some in the Dodge camp believe the new Charger will run better at those two tracks, but nothing will be known until next month's Budweiser Shootout provides the first true test.
While Newman's glad to have won at a wide variety of tracks quite early in his career, he knows taking the checkered flag at Daytona would be special.
For now, though, the Daytona 500 remains a vexing challenge. He finished seventh as a rookie in 2002, but that's been his highlight in the season opener.
"We've struggled to get speed. I don't know if our cars are too straight up or what it is," Newman said. "We can come to Daytona and struggle to qualify and go to Talladega and be a top-10 qualifier. We just try to understand the different parts of what happens here at Daytona, but from a competitive standpoint it would definitely mean a lot to win the Daytona 500. I don't mean this in a bad way, but Michael Waltrip has kinda made a career of his two Daytona 500 wins. That's cool. It also shows how important the Daytona 500 is."
The Daytona 500, of course, is a race Rusty Wallace, his Penske Racing South teammate, has never won in an illustrious career. And if the two are running well this year everyone will be watching to see if they work together in the draft.
Much has been made of the fact the two don't always see eye to eye and Wallace has said he feels that, as a co-owner of Newman's team, he should receive more respect from the Indiana native.
Wallace says the two will iron out their differences before the season begins. While in Daytona for testing, Newman pointed out that he's in an awkward situation compared to most teammates. What he left unsaid was the fact that Mark Martin has an ownership interest in Kenseth's team and Jeff Gordon has the same in Johnson's team and those combinations get along just fine.
"It's just something I deal with and he deals with," Newman said before Wallace's vow that the two will settle things. "I've said this before. I'm in a difficult situation, and Rusty is in a difficult situation. We're not teammates in the way Tony Stewart and Bobby Labonte are. Tony Stewart doesn't own part of Bobby Labonte's car.
"It's kind of a conflict of interest in two different ways. Not only does Rusty own part of my car, but he competes against me and we're supposed to be teammates. Usually teammates in any kind of sport don't compete against each other, and that makes it super difficult. When you mix in egos and attitudes and theories behind that you can have a very big source of conflict. That's something we've tried to deal with and sometimes the best way to deal with it is to just ignore the whole thing."
While that may be Newman's solution, it's unlikely he's able to ignore his teammate completely. But it's a good bet such ancillary issues won't hinder his focus behind the wheel.
Once Newman's dialed in, it's hard to knock him off track. He'll head to Fontana and Las Vegas next week for a test of the new, shorter rear spoiler NASCAR has mandated for this season.
That should reduce the overall downforce on the car, something Newman favors. Still, he'll have to work hard to get the car balanced, but such a scenario plays into the hands of an engineer who has a fellow engineer in Matt Borland as his crew chief.
If that No. 12 Charger is dialed in, Newman should be in the hunt as the Chase heads down the stretch in 2005.
"The championship comes by itself if you win the right races," Newman said. "The bottom line is you still have to not have the DNFs we had last year. That's a big part of winning the championship.
"That's part of racing luck and part of having the right effort going into a program. Our ultimate goal is to always win the race everywhere we go and hopefully that puts us in a position where we can use our talent to win a championship."
Mark Ashenfelter is an associate editor at NASCAR Scene magazine and a contributor to ESPN.com.
Ryan Newman's engineering background helps the No. 12 car get dialed-in. But to win a Cup, one number's key: 36.