Newman and Dillon. Photo: Getty Images

Ryan Newman ready to emerge from cocoon and fly in 2014

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Caterpillar is one of the preeminent names in heavy machinery and equipment. But caterpillar can also mean an insect that goes through a catharsis and emerges a beautiful butterfly, ready to fly and begin a new life in a whole new world.

Both versions of Caterpillar/caterpillar apply to Ryan Newman.

First, he’s driving the primarily Caterpillar-sponsored No. 31 Chevrolet for Richard Childress Racing this season in the Sprint Cup Series.

At the same time, after being released by Stewart-Haas Racing last season under the pretense that there wasn’t enough sponsorship available to field his car – only to have Kurt Busch sign roughly a week or so later to essentially take Newman’s spot – Newman has emerged from his post-SHR cocoon ready to write a new chapter of his career with RCR.

One that potentially could finally reward him with what he’s chased for more than a decade: the Sprint Cup championship.

Given the way he was let go at SHR, you’d think Newman would have some lingering resentment at how the whole situation went down. But in a recent interview, Newman was anything but bitter.

“I have nothing to prove this year from any other year in my entire career, other than the fact of what I want to do and achieving my goals and winning the Chase,” Newman told MotorSportsTalk. “There’s nothing I need or have to prove to anybody else other than myself.

“It’s all over (his tenure at SHR). It’s more important not to burn a bridge behind you.”

Stewart-Haas’s loss is definitely RCR’s gain. Newman has replaced Jeff Burton, who has shifted to a part-time role with Michael Waltrip Racing this season in preparation for a new career as a TV analyst next season on NASCAR on NBC telecasts.

Not only has Newman quickly became acclimated to his new surroundings, in what could be a prelude of things to come, his new team has done a heck of a lot better thus far in Speedweeks than his old team.

New teammate Austin Dillon is on the pole for Sunday’s Daytona 500, while Newman and fellow teammates Paul Menard and Brian Scott were part of an RCR onslaught that recorded four of the 12 fastest speeds during this past Sunday’s pole qualifying.

And don’t think Newman doesn’t have thoughts of winning the Great American Race for the second time in his career on Sunday.

“We have everything that we need at RCR to be successful,” Newman said. “The biggest and best resource you can have is people, and Richard has put together a great group of people and I have a great crew chief in Luke (Lambert).

“I’m excited about it, about the way the cars drive, with some of the new rules on height and suspension, it kind of opens up a little bit of old school/new school stuff that we can work on and kind of tie things together.”

In a sense, Newman’s move to RCR is completing some unfinished business. Before he agreed to join fellow Hoosier Tony Stewart at the rechristened Stewart-Haas Racing in 2009, Newman was courted heavily by Childress in 2008 to join his team, as well.

SHR ultimately won out in the battle for Newman’s services, but he never forgot the impression he got of Childress’ overall organization, to the point that Newman told himself if he ever had a chance to go to RCR again in his career, he’d definitely pursue it.

So in a roundabout way, Newman has SHR – particularly team majority owner Carl Haas, who chose Busch over Newman – to thank for changing his fortunes for what he believes will definitely be for the better in 2014 and beyond.

“The biggest thing is they’re in control of their own destiny,” Newman said of RCR. “They build their own engines, chassis and bodies, they have a great group of people. I had experienced a little bit about what they had to offer five years before, so I still kind of had that taste in my mouth of what the potential was.

“Albeit, things didn’t work out for us back in 2008 for the 2009 season, but in my additional experiences with Stewart-Haas Racing, I know the importance about being in control of your own destiny.”

So with SHR now nothing more than a distant memory, and no lingering bitterness at how it all went down, it’s everything’s positive and full steam ahead for Newman and RCR from here on out.

“Change is good,” Newman said. “We saw last year, especially with Matt Kenseth’s move, that moving a driver into an existing team still gives him a great opportunity.

“That doesn’t mean it’s going to happen every time or every season or with every driver, but that was a good example at least to say that yes, it can be done. I look forward to all of this year.”

Follow me @JerryBonkowski

IndyCar 2015 Driver Review: Helio Castroneves

Helio Castroneves
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MotorSportsTalk continues its look through the 2015 Verizon IndyCar Series field with fifth-placed Helio Castroneves.

Helio Castroneves, No. 3 Team Penske Chevrolet

  • 2014: 2nd Place, 1 Win, 3 Poles, 6 Podiums, 7 Top-5, 10 Top-10, 282 Laps Led, 5.7 Avg. Start, 9.3 Avg. Finish
  • 2015: 5th Place, Best Finish 2nd, 4 Poles, 5 Podiums, 6 Top-5, 9 Top-10, 198 Laps Led, 4.9 Avg. Start, 9.3 Avg. Finish

Much as you’d write about his fellow countryman and longtime friend and rival Tony Kanaan, age hasn’t slowed Helio Castroneves, but it’s instead fueled continued success. And while Castroneves went winless for only the second time (2011) in his illustrious 16-year career with Team Penske, he wasn’t down on performance.

Now 40, Castroneves continued to have several shining moments in 2015, which was particularly important to do to stand out against defending champion Will Power, this year’s primary title contender Juan Pablo Montoya and new driver Simon Pagenaud.

Castroneves scored four pole positions and boasted a 4.9 averaging starting position, second in the field to Power, which was very impressive to note. His run of form from Texas through Milwaukee, capturing three podiums in four races, was his best race stretch this season. Additional highlights included back-to-back runner-up results in the NOLA lottery and then on pure pace at Long Beach.

The month of May must though be viewed as a disappointment. Castroneves played a role in the first corner mess at the Grand Prix of Indianapolis and got a points penalty (although the number was dropped) as a result. Then he endured another Indianapolis 500 where he was not the out-and-out fastest car in the Penske brigade. While Montoya and Power were dueling for the win and Pagenaud had speed to burn all month, Castroneves’ lone moment of note came with his accident in practice, which mercifully he emerged unscathed from.

As ever though, fifth in this field owed to his consistency and dogged determination to succeed. Castroneves has ended top-five in seven of the last eight seasons since the IRL/Champ Car merger in 2008 and if it wasn’t for Dixon’s top-three run hogging the headlines, we’d probably appreciate Castroneves even more so. As long as he’s continually competitive, he’s still worthy at Team Penske.

IndyCar 2015 Driver Review: Graham Rahal

Graham Rahal
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MotorSportsTalk continues its driver-by-driver review of the field in the 2015 Verizon IndyCar Series.

Next up is fourth-placed Graham Rahal, who had a career year.

Graham Rahal, No. 15 Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing Honda

  • 2014: 19th Place, Best Finish 2nd, Best Start 4th, 1 Podium, 2 Top-5, 4 Top-10s, 28 Laps Led, 14.4 Avg. Start, 15.0 Avg. Finish
  • 2015: 4th Place, 2 Wins, Best Start 5th, 6 Podiums, 8 Top-5, 10 Top-10s, 76 Laps Led, 11.0 Avg Start, 8.5 Avg. Finish

Formula 1 fans will remember the miraculous, shock rise of Brawn GP, which didn’t even exist as a team until mere weeks before the 2009 Australian Grand Prix having risen from the demise of the former Honda factory team, and then promptly proceeded to stomp the field en route to winning both the Driver’s and Constructor’s World Championships that season.

It’s the best racing comparison in recent years – or perhaps any year – for what was done at Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing in 2015, courtesy of a career year from Graham Rahal, an instant chemistry renewal with the people father Bobby put in place, and the fact Bobby himself stepped back this year to allow his team’s key players to shine through.

Because quite simply, after finishes of 18th and 19th the last two seasons, no one in their right mind had Rahal winning races and contending for a championship this season.

It’s hard to say specifically which point was most important, because all played dividends. Bobby Rahal moved off the pit box, and actually missed a fair number of races this year, which allowed Graham and team manager Ricardo Nault to gel with Nault on the radio and pretty much running the team on the whole. Then there were the three key crewmember additions: Eddie Jones moving over to be lead engineer on the No. 15 car was clutch, as was Rahal getting the opportunity to reunite with Martin Pare and work for the first time with Mike Talbott. The addition of damper ace Stuart Kenworthy was not covered much this year, but undoubtedly a big help. Sponsor Steak ‘n Shake’s arrival also brought a wealth of attention.

And then there were the drives in the races themselves. Perhaps strangely, Rahal had a tough qualifying average – only 11th – but it was the best for a Honda driver this year. The strategy calls from RLL were damn near perfect all year and Rahal seized every opportunity at his disposal, be it his wins at Fontana and Mid-Ohio, his recovery at Iowa, and his numerous other podiums throughout the year. His charge to second at Barber stands out as one of the drives of the year.

Call Fontana lucky if you will, and he was fortunate to avoid a penalty for leaving with the fuel buckeye, but even so he still could have come back given where the race was at that point. And being on the receiving end of two ill-advised taps from Tristan Vautier and Sebastien Bourdais at Pocono and Sonoma, respectively, cost him huge results and huge points – the net effect of three races.

The single-car title charge was one of the stories of the year, even beyond Scott Dixon’s championship comeback and Juan Pablo Montoya’s consistent-until-Sonoma season. Rahal re-established his credentials on track if people had forgotten what he was capable of; additionally, he reaffirmed his status as one of racing’s best people with his work in the Justin Wilson memorial auction after that tragedy. It was truly a ’15 to remember for the driver of the No. 15 car.