INDIANAPOLIS — A year ago, Ryan Newman came to Indianapolis as a local favorite whose career was in limbo.
He left as a champion of another one of NASCAR’s crown jewel races.
Newman started the 2013 Brickyard 400 from the pole, and finished the race in Victory Lane. It was a significant boost for the South Bend native, who now has won both at Daytona and Indianapolis in his career.
Newman knew he was losing his ride with Tony Stewart’s team at the end of the year, but had a perfect weekend.
“I didn’t expect to win the race,” Newman said. “I don’t know that you can expect to win anything. You have to kind of put yourself in position. But it was definitely a sweet and bittersweet victory for us last year.”
He comes to Indy this weekend with a new ride – driving the No. 31 car for Richard Childress Racing, a team that has won championships in the past.
While Newman hasn’t added to his total of 17 Sprint Cup race wins since last year’s Brickyard, he has been consistently competitive with his new team.
He is currently placed seventh in the NASCAR Sprint Cup standings, 97 points back of leader Jeff Gordon. He’s done it with consistency, with two top five finishes and seven top 10s in the in 19 starts so far this season, including a third-place finish at Kentucky Speedway and a fifth-place finish in the most recent event, two weeks ago at New Hampshire.
“We’ve got some better finishes under our belt the last three or four races,” Newman said. “Two top-fives was something we needed to get. We’ve got to put ourselves in contention to win, which means being in the top five, not the top 10.
“We’ve been competitive everywhere. We just haven’t been a winning racecar everywhere. Come Chase time, we’re going to have to be.”
With the Brickyard sitting in the second half of the schedule, the season’s focus often begins to shift to the Chase for the Sprint Cup. After Sunday’s race, there will be six races before the Chase field is set.
The Chase format has significantly changed this season, expanding to 16 drivers, but by somewhat de-emphasizing the points standings, the focus of the Brickyard goes from “getting points” to getting the checkered flag. The top 15 Chase spots now go to the drivers with the most wins in the first 26 races – regardless of points. The last spot – and the remaining spots in the Chase field if there are fewer than 15 winners – go to the drivers with the most points.
Currently, 11 drivers have won races so far. Matt Kenseth (4th, 621 points) and Newman (7th, 573 points) are the highest-placing non-winners, followed by Clint Bowyer (10th, 548 points) and Paul Menard (11th, 541 points).
Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Brad Keselowski, Jimmie Johnson, Carl Edwards, Kyle Busch, Joey Logano, Denny Hamlin, Kevin Harvick, Aric Almirola and Kurt Busch have wins this year and likely have Chase spots sewn up.
Sprint Cup cars made their first appearance on the IMS track Friday morning. Matt Kenseth (186.285) and Clint Bowyer (186.070) – both driving Toyotas – took the top two positions on the speed chart. Brad Keselowski (185.939) was third.
Four-time winner Jimmie Johnson (185.647) and rookie Kyle Larson (185.445) rounded out the top five, and were the two fastest Chevrolet drivers. A Chevy-powered car has won 11 consecutive Brickyard 400s.
Among other notables – Kurt Busch, a former NASCAR champion who was the Indianapolis 500 Rookie of the Year in May – was sixth (185.117). Defending champion Ryan Newman was 12th (183.587), one spot behind former teammate and two-time Brickyard winner Tony Stewart (183.793). Four-time winner Jeff Gordon was 14th (182.408).
Forty-six cars are entered and will qualify for the 43 starting positions this morning – 24 Chevrolets, 12 Fords and 10 Toyotas.
Rain is in today's forecast. If it does rain, speeds from Thursday’s practice will set the running order, with the top 36 in points guaranteed a spot in the field.
Today’s schedule sees two highlights, capped with the Nationwide Series Lilly Diabetes 250, which rolls off the line at 4:50 p.m.
The day’s activity will begin at 9 a.m. with a two-hour practice for Sunday’s Sprint Cup race – officially named the Crown Royal Presents the John Wayne Walding 400 at the Brickyard. Nationwide Series qualifying is slated for 12:10 p.m. and Sprint Cup qualifying at 2:10 p.m.
Sunday’s 400-mile Sprint Cup race begins at 1 p.m.