Don't try to pit Ryan Newman against Penske Racing teammate Kurt Busch in a showdown for the final spot in the Chase for the Nextel Cup. Newman refuses to play along.
It's true Busch is 12th in the standings, and therefore with at least temporary custody of the final Chase slot. It's also true Newman is the first guy outside the top 12, 96 points behind Busch and four points ahead of Dale Earnhardt Jr.
But with four races left until the 12 Chase competitors are decided for 2007, Newman still is looking at it as a team effort with Busch.
"We're not competing against each other," said Newman, driver of the No. 12 Dodge. "We've got two teams going for the last two spots in the Chase. That's the way we look at it. Obviously we're 96 points out of 12th. But Kurt is not too far behind 11th and 10th. With four races to go, there's still opportunity for both of us to get in the Chase."
Newman is 154 points behind 11th-place Martin Truex Jr. In 2005, Matt Kenseth was 165 points below the Chase cutoff with four races to go and made the 10-race title playoff that year.
Kenseth finished third, first, seventh and second in the four races before the Chase cutoff that year, and when Kasey Kahne staged a late-summer rally to make last year's Chase he was fourth, 12th, first and third during the same four-race stretch.
Crashes at Bristol and Indianapolis and engine failures at Daytona and Charlotte have led to poor finishes that have Newman on the Chase brink after 22 races, and a 37th-place finish, four laps down, at Michigan in June didn't help, either. Newman has two victories at the 2-mile Michigan International Speedway, but since the most recent one in June 2004, he hasn't had a top-10 finish at the site of Sunday's 400-mile race.
"It's a fun race track to race at, as far as a driver goes," Newman said. "You can do some really good racing there. We've been in Victory Lane before, (but) we're still looking for not only our first win of the season, but our first win of the last two seasons. We've got some work ahead of us. It's just a matter of getting the job done."
Newman has 12 Nextel Cup victories, but none since he outdueled Tony Stewart in the first Chase race in 2005 at New Hampshire. That was 67 races ago, which is not the kind of drought anybody would have expected after Newman won eight races in 2003 in his second full season in Nextel Cup.
"I thought we would do better the next year and better the year after," Newman said. "That's just the way it would work. But, you know, I still feel as a driver I'm fully capable of winning those eight races-plus per year. The team and the people are what make the difference.
"We've had pretty much every member of the team, besides the truck driver, change positions or we have new people. We're kind of starting over. We are rebuilding. The 2003 season was pretty much the last year we had that full-time group of guys."
Busch is in his second season as Newman's teammate in the No. 2 Dodge, and Newman says their relationship has been solid.
"Kurt has been a great teammate," Newman said. "He's taught me some things. I think I've taught him some things. Without a doubt, we're sharing more information. Our teams are getting along great. I mean, it's not just the drivers.
After the season's 17th race, Busch was 236 points behind 12th place in the standings.
During the next four races, though, he finished third, sixth, 11th and then first with a dominating victory at Pocono that pushed him into the top 12.
Newman, who had five top-10 finishes in six races in May and June capped by back-to-back runner-up finishes at Dover and in the first Pocono race, was happy to see Busch get his first victory of the year and knows he needs another big run in the next four weeks.
"They hit everything right," Newman said of Busch's team in the second Pocono race. "They had a fast car. They did a great job, put themselves in position for the win and won. We were close to doing it the first race. We were close to doing that at Dover. We've been close a few other times this year, we just haven't done it."
Now would be a great time to change that.