Ryan Newman makes his return to the NASCAR Cup series, ‘It’s fun to be back’

DARLINGTON, SOUTH CAROLINA - MAY 13: Ryan Newman, driver of the #51 Biohaven/Jacob Co. Ford, meets with crew members during qualifying for the NASCAR Cup Series Goodyear 400 at Darlington Raceway on May 13, 2023 in Darlington, South Carolina. (Photo by Logan Riely/Getty Images)

Ryan Newman has officially entered a new world. The 45-year-old is back at a NASCAR track after a two-year absence and racing in the Cup series again, this time however, he’s racing the Next Gen car for the first time. Newman will enter five races this season for Rick Ware Racing. His first race back is this weekend’s throwback race at Darlington Raceway.

“It’s fun to be back and at my favorite racetrack,” Newman said Saturday after qualifying 26th. “I will say that the practice and qualifying session was less dynamic than I thought it was going to be. The changes from the old car, the shifting and all that stuff, I felt like I adapted to all that stuff rather quickly, but the track is still my favorite, so that made it a lot easier. It’s easier to dance with a girl that knows how to dance.”

Since leaving the NASCAR Cup series at the end of 2020, Newman has raced in the NASCAR modified series and in 2022 joined the Superstar Racing Experience owned in part by Tony Stewart, where he finished second in the championship to Marco Andretti. He has committed to returning to that series this season.

But that doesn’t mean he isn’t open to racing in the Cup series again. Newman said his five race deal with Rick Ware works for his life now.

“Ultimately, I’m a week on, week off with my kids and just the way the schedule worked out my daughter is not racing,” he said. “Obviously, there was a change in the driver lineup with the 51 car and gave me the opportunity to come and do this.

“I literally started this conversation prior to Martinsville, and it was by accident when I texted Tommy Baldwin asking him about an opportunity to race a modified. He asked me if I wanted to go to Martinsville and I said, ‘In a modified?’ And he goes, ‘No, in a Cup car.’ And it all worked out for us to put all this together and do this, so thanks to Jacob Companies and Biohaven and Rick Ware Racing to give us the opportunity to, I say, play, but ultimately, I feel like we’ve got a pretty competitive car that we just have to execute and see if we can move up from where we start.”

Newman took his first laps in the Next Gen car during Saturday’s practice.

“It drives pretty good. I mean, it’s totally different with the steering and transmission, shifting and all that stuff,” he said. “It’s the first time I’ve ever shifted here at Darlington on a competitive lap, so the steering was probably the biggest change. The second biggest change was the way you drive the car and the fact that you can’t afford to get it sideways. I did a couple times just crossing seams and things like that, but it felt like we had a good practice session. I just wanted to get some laps under my belt, take some time and really kind of impress myself, I would say, in my qualifying lap to pick up a second from where we practiced and know that we’re still not top 10 on the speed charts, but, ultimately, it was a good, competitive lap.”

As for what he will consider a successful outing on Sunday.

“I’ll let you know on Monday,” he said. “Realistically, I feel like today has been successful and I feel like if we can just progress from where we are today and our competitive level, then Sunday will hopefully take care of itself. I don’t come here expecting to win or lead the most laps or anything like that. I’m realistic in those thoughts, but, ultimately, if we have the opportunity to just keep moving forward in the field and have good execution.”

In 2020 while leading the Daytona 500 coming to the checkered, Newman was involved in a horrifying accident that put him in the hospital but ended with the heartwarming sight of him leaving the hospital just two days later holding the hands of his two young daughters. He would return to racing 3 events later, but many felt he was never the same. Safety is a big part of the Next Gen car and was a big part of Newman’s decision to return.

“I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t feel like I was putting myself at a significant risk,” he said. “I mean, we’re always at some kind of risk, but based off the last 14-18 months proved myself right with some of the injuries and situations that we’ve had and talked about in the Cup garage. Ultimately, I know NASCAR is doing their job to make the cars better as they always have, and this has been an entirely new beast that I think has surprised them in some of the aspects that they thought weren’t going to be an issue. Ultimately, I’m here because I feel comfortable and if we do something else, it’ll be at a comfortable place.”

Newman has a degree in engineering and when he was racing was known for his knowledge of all design aspects involved in the sport. During his time away Newman he still kept an eye on things.

“I’ve paid attention to everything in respect to the car’s development, driver’s comments, safety, roll bars and crashes and data and things like that,” he said. “I’ve been in tune, so it’s not like I’ve just been out on the farm making hay. I feel like it’s fun to be back and it’s fun to have the opportunity and I look forward to tomorrow.”

One of the biggest factors that played into his decision to return was the choice of where he would race, and why he is starting at Darlington.

“It’s definitely nice to have the driver be more a part of the equation as long as you feel like you’re a good driver,” he said. “If you feel like you’ve got a good car at Daytona, Talladega, Atlanta, whatever you want to call it, then it’s more about the car. I feel like we have a great combination to work towards progress and that’s where we’re starting here. Today is a starting point. I don’t know where the ending point is, but we’ll take it one step at a time.”

As for doing more than the five races he’s committed to.

“I told them when I did it. I said, ‘The only way I’m going to do this and continue to do this is if it’s fun,’ and today was fun, so we’ll see.”

As wanting to come back to the Cup series fulltime.

“I always said if the opportunity came and it was right, then I would do that,” Newman said. “Obviously, the Hendrick lineup and the Gibbs lineup and the Penske lineup and what-not are fairly full and intact. I don’t see any changes there.

“This is an opportunity, especially with this car that’s somewhat equalized the field and the competition. When you tell the guys that they have to put this nut, this washer, this bolt, this whatever and have all these tolerances, then you’re taking a lot of the team characterization out of performance. Obviously, when I left Gibbs was stout. Hendrick was stout and there was obvious advantages per chassis that got grandfathered in. Who had the best nose and things like that, so I think it’s a good opportunity for me to sample where the series is right now.”

Greg Engle