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.”

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Schmidt Peterson aiming high with Hinchcliffe, Wickens

Photo: IndyCar
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The new Schmidt Peterson Motorsports duo of James Hinchcliffe and Robert Wickens expressed a high amount of confidence during Wednesday’s confirmation of Hinchcliffe’s return and Wickens’ signing, as the pair looks to return the Sam Schmidt and Ric Peterson co-owned team to prominent status within the Verizon IndyCar Series.

“We’re hoping to give Toronto and Ontario and Canadian sports fans in general something to cheer about over the next season,” Hinchcliffe quipped during a teleconference on Wednesday.

Granted, there are likely to be several challenges to overcome, notably for Wickens, who returns to single-seater competition for the first time since 2011, when he was a champion of the Formula Renault 3.5 series and served as test driver for the now defunct Manor Racing (then known as Marussia Virgin Racing).

Having spent every year since then in DTM, where he won a total of six races and finished as high as fourth in the championship (2016), Wickens knows returning to open wheel competition will be an adjustment. However, he explained that the history of Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, specifically its Indy Lights history, speaks to their ability to help a driver adapt, and he rates the program they’re putting together very highly.

“I think Schmidt Peterson Motorsports have a fantastic driver development program. They showed that in their multiple Indy Lights championships along the way. I think we will have a strong program in place. I have a feeling that the simulator will be my new best friend,” Wickens said when asked about getting reacquainted with an open-wheel car.

Of course, having an experienced teammate like Hinchcliffe to lean on will undoubtedly help the transition, something Wickens readily admitted.

“I’m very fortunate that I have James as my teammate because he’s so experienced, I can learn off him. Because we already have such a good off-track relationship, I feel like you can just take his word, trust him, kind of move forward with it,” he revealed.

They’ve been teammates before, both in karting where they first met in 2001, and then in the now-defunct A1 Grand Prix series in 2007-2008, a series that pitted nations against each other in spec open-wheel cars. Funnily, that A1GP type of vibe returns as Schmidt Peterson Motorsports now has that with its “Team Canada” mantra while all four of Andretti Autosport’s full-season drivers are American.

For Hinchcliffe, Wickens’ background, even if it hasn’t been in the single-seater realm since 2011, was a big selling point in adding him to the team.

“In Robby, we have a proven winner at a very high level. The level of technical expertise that he comes with from his time in DTM is very impressive,” he said of Wickens’ technical background.

Hinchcliffe added that Wickens’ ability to analyze the car and its setup was evidenced in two outings: one at Sebing International Raceway in March, in part of a “ride swap” between the two longtime friends, and a second at Road America, when he subbed on Friday practice for Mikhail Aleshin.

Wickens sampled Hinchcliffe’s No. 5 Arrow Electronics Honda earlier this year. Photo: IndyCar

Hinchcliffe revealed that Wickens’ feedback to the team and his ability to quickly adapt to the chassis took everyone somewhat by surprise.

“We did our ride swap. He had two hours in the car, hardly anything even resembling a test day, and his performance was pretty impressive. No doubt the time in Road America helped because that really gave us a better sense of his technical feedback, integrated with the team a little bit more. Everybody was happy to work with him on that day,” said Hinchcliffe.

Further still, Hinchcliffe is firm in his belief that the 2018 aero kit and its reduction in aerodynamic downforce will fall right into Wickens’ wheelhouse, based on Hinchcliffe’s own take after sampling Wickens’ DTM Mercedes earlier this year.

“In all honesty, I was saying earlier today, the 2018 car is probably better suited for him than the 2017 car because of the experience he’s had the last handful of series,” Hinchcliffe asserted.

“The (aero kit) was such high downforce, it would be a big change coming out of DTM. But with the loss of downforce that we’ve seen, the car is moving around a little bit more, brake zones, things like that, it won’t be as big a transition I think. Just based on the experience that I got in our ride swap, I think he’s going to adapt very quickly, be comfortable very quickly, and as a result be competitive very quickly. So it’s going to be exciting.”

As for expectations heading into next year, team co-owner Schmidt did not mince words and expects the team’s performance to resemble what they did in 2012, 2013, and 2014, when they won a total of four races (with driver Simon Pagenaud) and finished in the top five in the championship each year.

“We had a stint in ’12, ’13, ’14 where we finished fifth in the points (or better. I think we want to get back to that level of competition,” Schmidt added. “We felt like we were missing things in having two cars with equal funding and equal drivers and equal capabilities. We think this gets back there.”

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