A New Beginning at an Old Favorite in the Arizona Desert

For Ryan Newman, Sunday’s Subway Fresh Fit 500k NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race at Phoenix International Raceway marks a fresh start for him and his No. 39 WIX Filters Chevrolet for Stewart-Haas Racing (SHR).

In fact, in his mind, there’s no better place for Newman and his team to get back on track after a disappointing 21st-place finish in the season-opening Daytona 500 at Daytona (Fla.) International Speedway.

There’s been no better track for the South Bend, Ind., native the past two seasons than Phoenix. In his last four starts there, Newman has a win (April 2010), a runner-up finish (November 2010) and two fifth-place efforts (February and November 2011).

Newman looks to continue and improve upon that string of impressive finishes this weekend at a track that has been a cornerstone of several important moments in his career.

Over the years, the mile oval nestled in the Arizona desert has been a comfort zone of sorts for Newman, and the track’s challenging and unique layout is a favorite.

His love of Phoenix seems natural. The track harkens back to the days of Newman’s early racing career in the United States Auto Club (USAC). It’s also the track on which he made his Sprint Cup Series debut in November 2000.

The then-22-year-old driver had already impressed in the open-wheel divisions of USAC, collecting numerous wins and honors, as well as capturing the 1999 Silver Crown championship. He had also received accolades following his stellar performance behind the wheel of an ARCA stock car in a five-race effort that produced two poles, three wins and four top-10 finishes.

At Phoenix, Newman wasted no time showing the Sprint Cup regulars his penchant for turning a quick lap as he qualified 10th in the No. 02 Penske Racing entry in his maiden effort. He went on to be competitive during the race, too, although the final results show a 41st-place finish due to an engine failure.

In 2010, Phoenix was the site of another big first for Newman – his first victory with SHR.

A bold pit call on the final caution of the night put Newman in position to capture the win – his first at Phoenix, as well as crew chief Tony Gibson’s first career win at the helm of a Sprint Cup team.

This weekend, Newman and Co., rolls into Phoenix for the second race of the 2012 Sprint Cup season in hopes of continuing his string of solid performances in the “Diamond in the Desert.” Newman has had equally strong performances behind the wheel of the gold-and-black WIX Filters racecar.

With WIX Filters on the hood of his No. 39 Chevy, Newman has never finished outside of the top-10. He has four top-10 finishes – a sixth-place effort at Bristol (Tenn.) Motor Speedway in August 2010, a third-place finish in last season’s Budweiser Shootout, a fifth-place run at Michigan International Speedway in Brooklyn in August 2011 and a seventh-place result in this year’s Shootout.

In 19 Sprint Cup Series starts at Phoenix, Newman has four poles, the April 2010 win, seven top-five finishes and seven top-10s.

This weekend, the team turns its focus once again to Phoenix, a track where many believe the Sprint Cup season to officially starts. What better way to open the march as a championship contender than a win at Phoenix? That is exactly the mindset of Newman and Co., as it heads west to the Arizona desert.

RYAN NEWMAN, Driver of the No. 39 WIX Filters Chevrolet Impala for Stewart-Haas Racing:

Your No. 39 WIX Filters team has not finished lower than fifth at Phoenix in the past four starts. What makes your team so strong at this racetrack?

“We go to Phoenix with a good setup, and that shows by our finishes there. And luckily the changes to the track didn’t change that for us last fall. It’s hard to say why we’ve done so well there, but it’s one of my favorite tracks, and that definitely is a factor. I guess I would kind of lump Phoenix into the success that we’ve had on short tracks. The combination of Tony Gibson (crew chief), the No. 39 team and me have really been able to hit on something at the tracks a mile and under – like Martinsville and Bristol. And Phoenix is flat like New Hampshire, which is another track where we’ve had success. In my opinion, the driver has a little more of an impact on the end result at short tracks than some of the bigger racetracks, and I like that. The more the drivers are involved, the more I think you get to race and, from that standpoint, I think it’s more fun. Tony Gibson has some great setups with our short-track program. I enjoy them, he enjoys them, and we just go out there and have some fun. We’ve had a good car each time we’ve been to Phoenix. Gibson is a great fan of Phoenix and short-track racing, and he’s got a great understanding of the racecar there and what I like, and that makes a big difference, obviously, for me. We’ve been able to get four top-five finishes in our last four trips to Phoenix. So I’m really looking forward to getting back there this weekend after a really long Speedweeks.”

One of those top-five finishes came on a newly paved, newly designed racetrack last fall. What are your thoughts on the new Phoenix and do you expect any differences when you return to the track this weekend?

“Honestly, the changes that were made to the racetrack – the new pavement and the slight changes to the design – didn’t really change my opinions on the racetrack itself. Phoenix has always ranked up near the top of my list as one of my favorite racetracks. It’s really one of my favorite racetracks because the design of the racetrack makes it fun and challenging to drive. It’s definitely a driver’s racetrack. We’ve always said that because it’s so unique. It’s different from one end to the other. And, therefore, the crew chief can only get one end perfect, it seems, and the other one the driver has to adapt to. It’s not a compromise if your crew chief does a good job setting up the racecar because you can do things to try to manipulate those opposite ends of the racetrack.  But, when your car is not working, it’s up to the driver to make up what you can of what’s left, and that I think separates the men from the boys at Phoenix. The driver really has to drive and hustle the car a little bit more and a little bit differently and still be smooth. It’s those aspects that make the track a lot of fun to me.

“I really thought Phoenix did a nice job getting the track ready for us last year. The racing itself was good, and the track I don’t think is a huge difference. I was pleasantly surprised with how good it drove. They had worked really hard to put rubber down on the racetrack, and we had two grooves for the better part of the race. The racetrack was probably at its best when the checkered flag fell and, with time, weather and a couple of months of aging, I’m sure it has already improved. I think it will only be better by the time we race this Sunday.”

So many say that this is really the start to the season – that while the Daytona 500 is the season-opener, Phoenix is a much better barometer for the team. What are your thoughts on that?

“Although Daytona is our biggest race, I think most people will tell you the season really starts with the second race just because it seems to be a better gauge in determining what you have compared to other teams.

Phoenix is a special track to me. It’s where I started my Sprint Cup career. It’s the first track I raced on in NASCAR, so it’s an important place. And, it’s a special track for our team, too, because it’s where we were able to get our first win back in 2010. It’s just a track I have always liked from my USAC days. Back then, Phoenix was the place to race, so it’s kind of like a track that’s the backbone of how I’m used to racing. We have run so well there the past few years, and we seem to be in tune with the racetrack, so we’re looking forward to continuing our streak of solid finishes there.”