By Jerry Bonkowski
The Sports Xchange
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- New team. New crew chief. New car. New sponsor.
Same old Ryan Newman.
Even with virtually everything new in his racing life coming into the 2009 season, the South Bend, Ind., native is not letting any of that detract from his focus in Sunday's Daytona 500: to repeat what he did last year, when he virtually came out of nowhere, worked his way up through the pack, received an outstanding push on the final lap from his teammate at the time, Kurt Busch, and then held on to earn the victory in the 50th Daytona 500.
"Even with all the things that are new for us in 2009, we're still coming in to this race thinking we can win it again," Newman said. "We got a great push from Kurt last year to win, and I'll be forever grateful for that.
"But the one thing a lot of people forget is who finished third in that race, too."
And who might that be? None other than Newman's boss and teammate on his new team, Tony Stewart.
With Stewart on his side rather than as a rival, Newman strongly believes that if fate and good fortune are once again on their side, he and Stewart could combine to win the first official Sprint Cup race for the new Stewart Haas Racing team.
"It doesn't matter if it's me or Tony that wins it," Newman said. "The main thing is that one of us wins and that this organization wins right out of the box.
"That would be just so big for Stewart Haas Racing, for the 50-plus people we've brought in like Tony Gibson (Newman's crew chief) and Darian Grubb (Stewart's crew chief) and Bobby Hutchens (SHR director of competition), and would really help put us on the map right away, so to speak."
There has not been a repeat winner of the 500 and its coveted Harley J. Earl trophy since Sterling Marlin won back-to-back titles in the Great American Race in 1993 and 1994.
Ironically, Marlin's streak of 26 consecutive qualifying attempts for the 500 ended this year as he was unable to secure a ride and thus didn't get a chance to make the field for Sunday's race.
"Without question, winning the Daytona 500 last year was the biggest thing that's ever happened to me in my racing career," Newman said.
At the same time, he's not content to rest on last year's laurels.
"I don't think there were a whole lot of people that picked us to win last year's race before we did win it," Newman said. "It's pretty much the same thing this year: There's probably not a lot of people picking us to win, but for different reasons.
"They look and see a new team, new car (Chevrolet instead of winning in a Dodge last year) and all the new people that we have and they think, he or his teammate, meaning Tony, probably don't have a chance to win the first race out of the box for the new team. But let me tell you, we have come together as a unit very, very quickly. If just a few things go our way, we're ready to win at Daytona.
"It would be great to win two in a row. As big as last year's win was, it's kind of hard to imagine how you could top an achievement like that. But winning two in a row would certainly be one of the few things that could top it."
Stewart has two career wins at Daytona International Speedway, but both were in the summer Sprint Cup race at the high-banked, 2.5-mile superspeedway. He'd love to finally get that monkey off his back in his 11th career start in the Great American Race.
"Ryan already has a win in the 500. He should spread the love around to his teammate," Stewart said, laughing.
But the possibility of the winning driver in Sunday's race coming out of the Stewart Haas Racing stable is not a funny matter. With chassis, motors and technical support from Hendrick Motorsports, the so-called start-up team is in a rare position to be as competitive as the other 41 cars on the race track.
All things being equal, the difference rests in the drivers themselves. Stewart is arguably one of the best restrictor-plate drivers in the business, behind perhaps only Dale Earnhardt Jr. and maybe three-time defending Sprint Cup champ Jimmie Johnson.
That his name is on the front door of Stewart Haas Racing and that this is the company's first race ever -- and of course, the first Daytona 500 ever (not including the former Haas CNC Racing that the new company was carved out of) -- winning isn't just an option, it's almost mandatory to put SHR on the map competition-wise.
"It would be huge for Ryan or myself to win the Daytona 500, just absolutely huge," Stewart said. "We've put so much effort into this and have some great people that left successful and secure jobs with other race teams and organizations to come to work for us because they believed in what we were doing and believed we could win right from the start.
"How can we let them down? I'll tell you, if I have anything to say about it, one of us is going to be driving into Victory Lane that day."
"I learned a long time ago that whatever the boss says, you agree with it," he laughed. "If Tony says we can win at Daytona, then we can win at Daytona. Now, it's just a matter of going out and doing it."