Lightning In a Bottle
Ryan Newman learned an awful lot about chemistry at Purdue. But the kind of chemistry that can make the minute differences between winning and losing a Sprint Cup race? That can't be found in any textbook that Newman owns.
Case in point: Teammate Tony Stewart was so frustrated with his performance heading into the 2011 Chase that he felt undeserving of a spot in it. But with victories at Chicagoland and New Hampshire, suddenly the chemistry between Stewart and crew chief Darian Grubb changed dramatically.
And Newman is at a loss to explain it.
"If you look at Tony and Darian's relationship before the Chase, during the Chase and after the Chase, you would scratch your hair until you have no hair," Newman said during NASCAR's preseason media tour. "How that worked? I don't know. I don't know that it was supposed to, but it did.
"It's difficult from my perspective, when you have a great relationship with a guy like Tony Gibson, and all of a sudden, our performance falls down during the Chase. And these two guys -- who were struggling -- skyrocketed to the top in the first two races. It was like, 'What are we doing right that's wrong?'"
Newman points to those two races as not only the turning point in Stewart's season, but his own as well. Newman had recorded six top-10 finishes over a nine-race stretch heading into the Chase, and felt like he had as much momentum as any of the championship contenders.
But as much as the light bulb seemed to turn on for Stewart and Grubb, Newman said he and crew chief Gibson quickly found themselves groping in the dark for answers after the first two Chase races.
"I guess some of our struggles in a roundabout way were due to [Stewart's] success," Newman said. "He wins the first race in the Chase [on fuel mileage] after not winning any, and we run out of fuel and finish eighth. We go to the next race, win the pole, lead a bunch of laps and finish [25th], and he wins the race."
"That was the extra weight on our shoulders that kind of squashed us."
After missing the Chase in 2010, making it in 2011 should have left everyone on the No. 39 Chevrolet team with a positive feeling. But watching Stewart win the title -- while himself finishing a distant 10th in the points -- left Newman with mixed feelings.
When you have the opportunity to capitalize on your success and don't close the deal -- especially when your teammate does -- it can leave a bitter aftertaste.
"We definitely failed, from a team standpoint, in those 10 races," Newman said. "Our chemistry dissolved. We have to control that better. That's one of the things we have to fix for 2012, hands down.
"I feel like we've had some opportunities that have gotten away from us. I won't say we've given races away but we should have been in Victory Lane more often than we have been. Those are the things we need to fix.
"Those things go hand in hand," Newman said. "When you can't fix those things and you know that you should -- and are capable of doing it but you haven't -- that makes it really tough to swallow."
The goal for Newman this season is to try to regain that chemistry. But saying it and doing it are two separate things.
"Chemistry, you can't make it happen," Newman said. "It either happens or it doesn't. Going back to 2009, you look at Tony Stewart's first 26 races -- he was the hands-down favorite to win the Chase and he didn't. He clobbered everybody and didn't win. But he has a horrible first 26 [in 2011] and wins. Same guy, same people. There's something there and I don't know what it is."
What it isn't is a rift between Newman and Gibson. If anything, Newman said that relationship only grew stronger from the adversity the two faced at the end of last season.
Newman admitted the final 10 races last year "were a struggle." But he remains committed to making the changes necessary to make the relationship with Gibson work.
"Relationships in general are like marriages," Newman said. "We argue about the simple things that don't matter, because the big things that do matter -- we've already agreed on. That's why we got married. And that's the situation with myself and Tony Gibson.
"I understand that he knows what he's doing as a crew chief. I know what I'm doing as a driver. We understand what our goals are. But it might be the simple things -- the way he works something or the way he describes it in reference to what he's had in the past -- and those are the things, the small humps, you have to get through."
It there was a magic formula for team chemistry -- a list of properties that could guarantee success -- Newman would be the first in line to test the results. Until then, it's more a matter of field study rather than classroom lab work.
"I still say it's chemistry," Newman said. "I don't know, and that's the real thing that's so amazing.
"It'll be interesting to see how the first five, 10 races go with Tony and [his new crew chief, Steve Addington] versus me and Tony. ... Chad Knaus and Jimmie Johnson can talk about it a different way, and Jeff Gordon and Alan Gustafson can talk about it a different way. It all changes."