Landing Sites for the Rocketman
With his win at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Ryan Newman affirmed that he's still as capable as he's ever been.
The former Daytona 500 champion and three-time NHMS winner started from the pole on Sunday for the 50th time in his career. He's only the ninth driver in history to achieve the feat and is in close company with drivers like Darrell Waltrip (59), Bobby Allison (58), Mark Martin (56) and Bill Elliott (55). Sunday marked the fifth time in his career that he's won a race from the pole.
The win vaults him up to 15th in the standings and he's just 20 points (or a win) away from taking the final Chase Wild Card from Martin Truex Jr.
However, while he's put himself in a position to chase a championship this season, his future remains very much in question. Owner Tony Stewart announced at NHMS two weeks ago that Kevin Harvick's signing with Stewart-Haas Racing would mark the end of Newman's tenure with the team.
The Rocketman has yet to land with a new organization. The historic win at the Brickyard proves that he deserves to remain with a prominent organization, but there seem to be very few suitors for his services.
Let's take a look at some of the more successful teams in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series and the possibility that Newman races for them in 2014:
Stewart-Haas Racing - This is obviously a throwaway, as it's been made clear he'll be departing the organization. Stewart says there are no plans to expand to four cars. Many would contend that Newman is far more successful than Danica Patrick, and there's no argument against that, but two things: she's still under contract next year, and she brings sponsorship money. I know it's tough to swallow, but it's a "c'est la vie" moment.
Hendrick Motorsports - Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Kasey Kahne, all four made the Chase last year, and all seem comfortably rooted with the organization. With NASCAR's restriction of four cars per team, there's no opening here.
Joe Gibbs Racing - It would be ironic if Newman got teamed up with the guy that called him an ogre and said he's "glad he's out of a job." However, the odds of Kyle Busch and Newman joining hands to sing "Kumbaya" around the JGR campfire seems unlikely.
There's an option to add a fourth driver, but the team has long seemed content running three teams. Kenseth was just brought in, Hamlin nearly won the 2011 Sprint Cup Trophy and Busch, while sometimes a loose cannon, is one of the best talent's in the sport.
Possibility: very slight.
Roush Fenway Racing - The team went down to three cars when it cut David Ragan's No. 6 after the 2011 season. That leaves the possibility of expanding back to four at some point, but another car doesn't seem to be an immediate interest and that might not be Newman's seat anyway.
Trevor Bayne, a former Daytona 500 winner like Newman, joined Roush Fenway Racing as a Nationwide Series driver midway through 2010 and has been seasoning himself there since. But, his ninth-place standing this year does raise questions on how soon he may (or may not) be ready for the Sprint Cup Series. Perhaps Newman could take the fourth seat ... perhaps.
Ok, now that we've taken a look at some of the teams that probably won't come calling. Here are some more intriguing possibilities:
Richard Childress Racing - Kevin Harvick's departure clearly opens up a seat with the team. It's all but assumed that Childress's grandson, Austin Dillon, will fill it. He just took over the points lead in the Nationwide Series this past weekend and won the Camping World Truck Series championship in 2011. But, that doesn't mean that Newman can't join the team as well.
RCR ran four cars until Clint Bowyer departed for Michael Waltrip Racing after 2011. His old No. 33 car still enters some races (Dillon drove it Sunday at Indy), and it was assumed that it was being saved for Dillon (before Harvick announced his departure). Younger brother Ty Dillon is in the trucks right now, but still a few years away from the Sprint Cup Series. It's possible that Austin Dillon and Newman bump RCR's car count back up to four and that Ty Dillon replaces an aging Jeff Burton sometime down the road.
Penske Racing - Newman raced for Roger Penske full-time in the Sprint Cup Series from 2002-08 and he made a point not to burn any bridges when he left there for Stewart-Haas Racing. His most successful seasons came with the team when he finished sixth three times and seventh in a four-year span from 2002-05. In 2003, he won eight races and claimed 11 poles. The team currently only fields two cars and picked up its first Sprint Cup Championship last season.
The possibility for expansion is there, but Sam Hornish Jr. has been very good for the team in the Nationwide Series, and they won't add two at once. Hornish was moved down after struggling in the Cup Series between 2009-11 (eight top-10s in three years) and wasn't overly impressive filling in for AJ Allmendinger last season (one top-10 in 20 races). It's possible Newman could edge him, but unlikely, Hornish has taken the time to develop in Nationwide and is in the midst of a second straight season of title contention.
Michael Waltrip Racing - The team continues to grow into one of NASCAR's elites. Clint Bowyer finished second last season and holds the same spot right now. Teammate Martin Truex Jr. is poised for his second consecutive Chase. And, Brian Vickers just piloted the No. 55 to victory lane at NHMS. The No. 55 really needs a full-time driver, as Mark Martin is starting to fade, but it would be a surprise to see the team go away from Vickers to fill that seat.
Of the above Nationwide drivers (Bayne, Dillon, Hornish Jr. and Vickers), only Austin Dillon seems more of a lock to take the step up to Cup than Vickers. MWR could consider expanding to a fourth car at some point, but it's hard to see them adding two full-time drivers at the same time.
Furniture Row Racing - Of all the options, this one is the most intriguing. Mind you, this is just spitballing, but Furniture Row has taken a big step forward with Kurt Busch behind the wheel. It's been a good fit for both parties, and Busch will likely stay put instead of jumping for a larger outfit. But, what's to stop the team from bringing the larger outfit to their current driver?
Money, obviously, but if Newman can bring sponsors to the table, he might be appealing. The idea of a race team isn't to toss one driver out there each week and hope for the best, it's to expand in size and stature. MWR is a great example of this build up. Furniture Row Racing is unique in that it's based out of Denver, but if the goal is to make it in the Sprint Cup Series, adding a second team should be on the task list.
Other - It's the dubious "other" distinction. There's Richard Petty Motorsports and Earnhardt Ganassi Racing, but neither has had the recent success to dictate expansion. Then again, neither really has had a marquee driver, so if Newman is floundering in the offseason, it's not out of the question for one to make an upgrade to him.
Another team that could be intriguing, albeit not for Newman's career goals, would be Tommy Baldwin Racing. TBR continues to try to expand from a former start-and-park to a fully competitive team. The next step is signing a bigger name driver. It's probably not Newman's goal, but I assume he'll take it if nothing else pops up, and it might not.
Possibility (for "Other"): high.
To recap, the highest possibility for Ryan Nemwan is that he, sadly, might have to accept a position with a lesser team and earn his stripes for the next year or two. However, Richard Childress Racing or Furniture Row Racing has the ability to add a car for him that isn't in waiting for an up-and-comer. Penske also might be a consideration, if the old team will have him back. All in all, though, it's not a good year to be a free agent.