Newman sees pairing with Busch as a strong start
Ryan Newman never wanted to draw comparisons to Dale Earnhardt.
When Newman first entered Cup racing and exhibited a hard-nosed, sometimes aggressive style, he conceded that he had a lead foot but shunned references to Ol' Ironhead. And when he won rookie of the year in 2002, he steered clear of predictions that he might be the first since Earnhardt to win a title the year after.
Now, though, he's taking a page out of the seven-time champion's book.
"I know how Earnhardt Sr. was about being called 'Senior,'" he said, "so I'm not sure I want to be called 'Senior' here."
Like it or not, though, the driver of Roger Penske's No. 12 Dodge Charger is the senior racer of the Penske Racing stable after the retirement of Rusty Wallace. And his task this season is twofold: First, he needs to mesh with new teammate Kurt Busch, another driver known for an aggressive brand of racing; and, second, he needs to figure out a way to share information comfortably with his new teammate to achieve a mutually beneficial relationship he never could find with Wallace.
"I look forward to Kurt and the entire team," Newman said. "I'd say 60 to 70 percent of the team has changed, personnelwise. Everybody at the [No.] 12 and [No.] 2 look forward to working together. We had a lot of conflicting things [with Wallace] in the past, and that's all behind us. Basically, we're all rookies again as far as us at the 12 and the people at the 2 being a two-car team and being efficient. It's going to take us some time to refine our ways and define our ways at the same time. It's something I look forward to. It's something that could be good for my career and success at Penske Racing."
Many will be watching closely to see how well Newman and Busch mesh. Busch is coming off fairly tumultuous times. Midseason last year, he was the center of NASCAR trade rumors that had him cutting his longtime ties with Roush Racing to begin anew with Penske. When those rumors were confirmed, Busch, who was signed with Roush through the 2006 season, was pressed constantly on whether he would try to get out of his contract early.
Near the end of the season, it was announced that Busch would leave Roush Racing after the 2005 season and that Chip Ganassi racer Jamie McMurray would replace him at Roush. Before Busch could enjoy putting that drama behind him, though, he had a run-in with Phoenix police that brought about a drunken-driving allegation. Although those allegations later turned out to be untrue, the damage was done when Roush suspended Busch for the last two events of the season.
All of this while Busch waded through the usual increased attention on a defending Cup champion.
However, Newman isn't concerned about dealing with Busch's public image. He's looking forward to dealing with Busch, the driver.
"We're both aggressive in our driving style," Newman said. "We're not aggressive in how we treat people. That's important to me. Kurt is a clean race car driver, and we've never had a run-in on the racetrack that drew us to a conversation later. We look forward to racing under the same roof for Penske Racing and doing Roger well, and more importantly doing well for ourselves."
Newman said he has a great deal of respect for Busch. After all, Busch played a role in Newman's first-ever victory, at New Hampshire in 2002. Newman recalls his crew chief relaying the message that day that it was about to rain. He recalls how Busch was breathing down his neck at the time. And he recalls how, for about 20 laps, Busch kept sticking his nose underneath Newman's Dodge. Then, he recalls how Busch tapped him once in the middle of a turn. Newman feared another tap; he feared that Busch would wreck him and steal the checkered flag.
Instead, there was no more contact and Newman won.
"I tapped you once because I wanted you to know I was there," Busch said to Newman afterward. "And I thought that was fair. As long as you hung on to it, we were going to the finish that way provided you didn't make a mistake."
Newman appreciated the clean racing.
"I gained a lot of respect for him," Newman said. "And I think he had a lot of respect for me in the first place, racing me the way he did and allowing me to win my first race."
That respect will be important as the two define the nature of their relationship as teammates. Although Newman is the senior member of the stable, he didn't experience the fruits of a multicar team the past three years because his and Wallace's groups didn't work well together. So when it comes to that aspect of teamwork, Busch is the more experienced driver.
"Kurt has got more experience than anybody as far as sharing information," Newman said, speaking for himself; his crew chief, Matt Borland; and even Busch's new chief, Roy McCauley. "I don't, so it's going to be difficult for me, maybe. Maybe it'll be easy. But I see it as something I'll have to adapt to. I think it's something that will strengthen Penske Racing, and that's all you can ask for, I guess."
Still, Newman views himself as a leader -- even if he intends to lead more by example than by voice. And when it comes to finding a comfortable level of communication, he's not afraid to draw lines.
"Hopefully, we'll have all the right morals and those things so when time passes we're still on the same page," he said. "It's a team sport, and I've always said it's a conflict of interest when you're helping somebody you're competing against. It's a difficult situation, but in the grand scheme of things, if everything works right, if you have an equation that works out the way Jack Roush's did last year, nobody complains about that except NASCAR. It's something we'll have to work on, but in this sport, you don't want to be dependent on anybody else other than your own team."
In that regard, Newman knows -- and already has made clear to Busch -- where he'll draw the line.
"As a driver, I'm not going to sit in a meeting and tell Kurt Busch how I drive my race car," Newman said. "That's not how it works. It's more talking about if the track changed or if you saw something on the race car that stands out."
For his part, Busch is looking forward to defining the contours of his relationship with Newman. He said that he thinks Newman can be a great leader but that he appreciates the impression he has gotten from Newman, so far, that there is no senior-junior system at the shop. He said Newman has treated him like a partner so far.
"I've got quite a bit to digest with my car, switching from Ford to Dodge and with the new crew chief," Busch said. "Once we get rolling, I know the two of us will draft together at Daytona. That's not going to be a problem. We've already discussed that, and you move on to the next step. Ryan and I are going to be buddy-buddy in this whole deal and help each other out. I had to first just put out on the table what was the problem [for him with Wallace]. Then it was moving on from there and not have that happen again. We've had three formal meetings with his crew chief and engineer and my crew chief and engineer. Then the two of us have just shot the breeze, hanging out."
To date, the dynamics have been to each driver's liking. Some of Busch's old teammates at Roush say Newman should expect things to remain that way.
"Kurt was extremely good at sharing information," Greg Biffle said. "He's really knowledgeable as a driver. & I think it's gonna benefit Ryan Newman to have a teammate like Kurt, not that there was anything wrong with Rusty, but that relationship -- as I understood -- wasn't that great and didn't pass a lot of information. So this may help Ryan with the information flow, might start on a clean slate, so to speak. It might help them both, but Kurt is a great driver. He'll do good in that organization."
Newman hopes so, although it's almost as though he's wincing when he speaks about The Good of the Organization. Newman said he always has had an insatiable drive to win and, although he cares for the Penske stable, he cautions people against looking at him as a spokesman for the group. He's a spokesman for himself and, senior driver or not, is concerned first and foremost with putting the No. 12 Dodge in Victory Lane.
"I think we learned some things [from a seventh-place finish in the 2005 finale] at Homestead, and I was really happy to be up front leading some laps and running in the top five all day," Newman said. "We definitely learned some things at Homestead and look forward to applying that in 2006. We felt like we finished the season off on a strong note."
Rupen Fofaria is a freelance writer living in Chicago and a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at email@example.com