Ryan Newman, Stewart-Haas Racing Chevrolet ImpalaFirst All-Star start: 5/18/2002Best finish: 1st, 2002How he made the race: Won the April 2010 race at Phoenix
Editor’s note: Eighteen drivers are guaranteed to start in the May 22 NASCAR Sprint All-Star Race, which will be televised live on SPEED, starting at 7 pm Eastern. Following is the fourth of 18 profiles of those drivers locked into the field.
Before Ryan Newman ever won a points-paying NASCAR Cup series race, he was a winner of the prestigious exhibition event now known as the Sprint All-Star Race.
Just 24 years old and in his first full Cup season, Newman held off a fast-closing Dale Earnhardt Jr. in the last two laps to score an improbable triumph at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
This was after racing his way into the main event by winning one of two preliminary races and becoming the last driver to make the cut.
When Newman reflects back on that night – May 18, 2002 – and the long odds he faced of even gaining entry into the field, his victory remains a source of pride and accomplishment.
“We put everybody that night in a race that we had to race our way into,” said Newman, who started 27th and withstood a furious charge from Earnhardt Jr. in the final segment. “The guys that were already locked in didn't have a clue who was going to be in. They didn't expect the 12 car (Newman) to be in there.
"We came up and we did what we had to. We kept working on our car all night and made it better and better and better. Added tape to it. It cooled down. We were on top of our game that night and it paid off.”
Both literally and figuratively.
In addition to collecting a winner’s purse of nearly $800,000, Newman used the performance to showcase his talent and potential. Many observers saw the youngster’s surprising run as a sign of things to come for the rookie driver who had made just 19 previous Cup starts – and none in the All-Star race.
Newman has indeed gone on to enjoy a solid career, highlighted by 13 points wins at Penske Racing and one at Phoenix in April with the Stewart-Haas Racing organization he joined at the beginning of 2009.
Newman’s most revered triumph to date came in the 2008 Daytona 500 in what turned out to be his last year with Penske.
"Until I won the Daytona 500, the All-Star win was my greatest victory. We beat everybody on a given night in our backyard,” Newman said in reference to Charlotte Motor Speedway’s close proximity to the race shops of most Cup teams. “We weren't racing for points but racing for glory and money, and it was a great win."
Newman is still seeking a return trip to victory lane in the All-Star race, which was formally known as “The Winston” in ’02 because of its sponsorship from then-series sponsor R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company.
Newman finished runner-up to Matt Kenseth in 2004 and has been a contender on a number of occasions. One was last year when a three-wide battle for the lead with Kyle Busch and Jeff Gordon in the closing laps resulted in Gordon spinning and Newman hitting the wall and suffering a cut tire.
Newman, who had rallied from shock issues earlier in the race, finished 18th.
"We had a really fast car at the end and had a great shot at taking the big prize,” the Indiana native said. “But when there are a million dollars and a lot of prestige on the line, you're doing everything you can to get to the finish line first. That's exactly what Ryan, Kyle and Jeff were doing at the time of the incident."
Newman learned early on – in his All-Star debut, in fact – just how badly every driver wants to win the race and just how high emotions are prone to run.
“That's the first time and only time in my career I've had a helmet thrown at me and I won the race,” Newman said. “I got in the back of Elliott Sadler going into (Turn) 1 and turned him around. I didn't do it on purpose. I was just racing hard. He threw his helmet at me.
“Just shows you the emotion of what happens on a night like that. I mean, you look back at the history of NASCAR … I can remember three helmets off the top of my head that have been thrown. One of them was for me at the All-Star race. I feel honored.”