KANNAPOLIS, N.C. – Ryan Newman and his U.S. Army Racing team may have been knocked down, but they refuse to give up and they will not accept defeat.
Following a night-ending accident that resulted in a disappointing 36th-place finish Saturday at Bristol (Tenn.) Motor Speedway, Newman dropped two positions to 15th in the driver standings and, most importantly, out of a wild-card spot with two races to go before the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Championship begins Sept. 16 at Chicagoland Speedway in Joliet, Ill.
Only the top-10 in points are locked into the 12-driver, 10-race Chase. Positions 11 and 12 in the Chase are wild cards, awarded to the two drivers between 11th and 20th in points with the most wins. In the event multiple drivers have the same number of wins, a driver’s point standing serves as the tiebreaker.
Kasey Kahne holds the 11th-place wild-card spot thanks to his two victories, the most of any driver outside the top-10. Kyle Busch vaulted into the 12th-place wild-card spot after Bristol thanks to his victory April 28 at Richmond (Va.) International Raceway, combined with his 13th position in the standings, which is higher than his fellow single-race winners in the top-20 in points – Jeff Gordon, Newman, Marcos Ambrose and Joey Logano.
With the odds seemingly stacked against the No. 39 Stewart-Haas Racing (SHR) team as the Sprint Cup Series rolls into Atlanta Motor Speedway for Sunday night’s AdvoCare 500, Newman & Company will need to dig its heels in and channel the lessons and attributes learned over the years from the more than 1 million U.S. Army Strong Soldiers the driver and team represent.
It will be imperative that Newman and his team exhibit the same mental, physical and emotional toughness of our Soldiers while they fight to achieve their goal of earning one of the coveted wild-card spots in the Chase.
One thing for certain, Newman and his Tony Gibson-led race team will not give up.
Since its first season together at SHR in 2009, the No. 39 U.S. Army Racing team has showcased an unwavering determination. The team even adopted an anonymously written poem entitled “Don’t Quit” as its mantra during that first season as it battled back from as low as 36th in the championship standings to a berth in the Chase and, ultimately, a season-ending ninth-place finish in the points.
Gibson rallied his troops each step of the way that season, reminding them that if they band together as a team, they could conquer any adversity. In fact, Gibson used his own personal experiences from his racing career as his rallying cry.
The year was 1992, and Gibson was the car chief for the team owned by driver Alan Kulwicki. Back then, the team was famously known for being an underdog, lacking the funding or the manpower of the super teams, but knowing it had heart and a resolve to be the best.
Its goal was to win the 1992 championship but, after a disastrous outing at Dover (Del.) International Speedway, where Kulwicki destroyed two racecars, it looked as if the championship hopes were over. With six races to go, the team was behind by a seemingly insurmountable 278 points.
As Gibson tells the story, Kulwicki walked into the hauler following the Dover race. He closed the doors behind him and said to his team, “Don’t give up on me, I won’t give up on you. We can still win this championship.”
And that’s precisely what happened. Kulwicki and his team rattled off four top-five finishes in the final six races and the championship battle between Kulwicki, Bill Elliott and Davey Allison went down to the wire that season 20 years ago. Kulwicki conserved enough fuel to finish second in the final race at Atlanta, which earned him the championship crown.
This weekend, Gibson returns to Atlanta in an all-too-familiar position. While the 2012 championship may not be on the line just yet, the No. 39 team knows it must prevail in its heated battle for one of the two wild-card spots so it can continue its fight for its ultimate goal – the 2012 Sprint Cup title.
In 19 starts at Atlanta, Newman has a record-tying seven pole positions, one top-five and six top-10 finishes. While the 1.54-mile oval hasn’t statistically been one of Newman’s best over the years, the No. 39 team has earned two top-10 finishes in five starts there since 2009.
There’s no doubt that Gibson will recall the lessons that Kulwicki, his late boss and friend, taught him 20 years ago, and he will remind Newman and the rest of the team to never give up because nothing is out of reach, no matter how bad it might seem.
It’s a theme that resonates well with the No. 39 U.S. Army Medicine team as that determination and fortitude are the same attributes the Army looks for in its Soldiers – putting the mission first, a never-quit attitude and a refusal to accept defeat.
Newman and his No. 39 U.S. Army Medicine team will tackle the next two races with a brave and gritty determination, just like the Army Strong Soldiers they represent attacks its own missions. This is a team that will not quit.
Last weekend at Bristol, you had a hard crash and ended the race 36th. How frustrating was that for you and the team? “It was definitely disappointing for us. We know we are in the fight for one of two wild-card spots, and to be involved in a wreck that took us out of the race and then cost us two spots in the points was definitely a big hit for us. But that’s part of racing. I’ve said all along that the wild-card spot could change each and every lap, and it still can. We’re going to Atlanta and to Richmond with the same goal we’ve had all season – to win. That’s the mission and that’s what we need to do. We’re here to get the best finish we can for the U.S. Army Medicine Chevrolet. We’re determined and focused on what we need to do, and I know we’re not going to give up. This team has proven that to me time and again. We won’t give up.”
What are some of the keys to racing at Atlanta? “Atlanta is fast, especially when the conditions are right. You have to hit your marks. It’s bumpy enough that those bumps can spit you right out. Getting into turn one and the middle of three and four, you’ve got catch everything just right. It’s kind of like surfing or wakeboarding – you’ve got to catch the waves right and, obviously, put the car in the right spot to do the right things with the gas and the steering wheel. I think it’s the combination of the tire grip we have, initially, and it’s a wide-open racetrack. There’s plenty of room to race there. It’s one of the best racetracks we go to for three- and four-wide racing in the corners. With Atlanta being a one-off race, it has a different feel to it now and a different feel to it than a lot of tracks we go to. But, in the end, we are there to do the same job, and that’s to win.”
You head to Atlanta this weekend with an opportunity to break a tie between you and Buddy Baker and set the pole record, with eight poles, at the 1.54-mile racetrack. What would it mean to you to hold the pole record at Atlanta Motor Speedway? “Buddy Baker has been a good friend and mentor to me since I got my opportunity to race stock cars with Penske Racing back in 2000. He was someone I had admired and, when I got to know him, we had a lot in common and really enjoyed each other. I still talk to him pretty frequently – and we both have a lot of stories about each other, which we won’t get into, but we had fun. A lot of people have heard me tell the stories about how and what Buddy taught me, but it’s something that’s pretty cool and has been really important to my career. Buddy and I would go to racetracks and we would take our rental car out on the tracks at tests and drive around the racetracks forward and backward. Driving the tracks backward gave me a different perspective of the entry and exit points of each corner. What Buddy did was teach me how to approach those areas on the racetrack when I was driving the track the right way. Atlanta was a track that he helped me with a lot. Back when I tied him for the pole record, I think he joked that he shouldn’t have taught me quite so well.
“To be honest, though, Buddy probably helped me more than I realized at the time because he never told me what to do – he told me what not to do. He would never tell me when I was doing something right, but he always told me what I was doing wrong because he wanted me to learn from my mistakes. He was an amazing teacher and I count myself very lucky to have Buddy as a friend and mentor. Teaching me the things not to do rather than the things to do made a big difference and a big impact. If I could not make some of those same mistakes he did that cost him a shot at a victory and to make an addition to his resume, those were things that were going to help my resume.
“We haven’t had a pole, yet, this year, and I really would like to get the pole record at Atlanta. I look at all the records that are out there and I think I told reporters last year that this may be my only shot at a record of any kind. But to me, it’s not so much about breaking Buddy’s pole record. In fact, being tied with Buddy is quite an honor for me. I think it would be even more of an honor if I could pass him and set my own pole record at Atlanta, just because I know what an incredible driver and teacher Buddy was to me, and I know how long that pole record has stood. It would be something really special. I think both Buddy and I would be excited if I could set the record this weekend.”