Back To The Future

AVONDALE, Az. - It's hard to believe that Ryan Newman's first-ever Winston Cup start came just three years ago in November 2000 at the location of this weekend's Checker Auto Parts 500 - Phoenix International Raceway. Watching him wheel his No. 12 ALLTEL Dodge week after week, one would think he had been at it much longer.

The 2000 race was the only time Newman sat in a Winston Cup car that year, but the experience prepared him for his first full season in NASCAR's elite series the following year.

"It's pretty hard to believe it's been three years since I made my first Winston Cup start -- and at Phoenix, of all places," said Newman who now has 76 Cup career starts under his belt. "I ran a bunch of ARCA races before the decision makers at Penske Racing put me behind the wheel of a Cup car. We ran well in the ARCA car, so I guess that helped make the decision to run the race at Phoenix that much easier. The Phoenix area is a big market for ALLTEL, so that was one of the big factors entering the equation. I just wish the end result had been better. Looking back on it, we didn't have the best day, but I'm glad we made the effort. It was an eye-opening experience for all of us on the ALLTEL team and a preview of what the next year would bring."

Three years, 15 career poles and nine Winston Cup wins later, Newman is returning to the Valley of the Sun for the fourth time. The Phoenix track has had some construction and cosmetic changes since the series' last visit. Leading up to this weekend's race, a new tunnel was added and the Turn 2 wall was moved 12 feet.

What are Newman's expectations on those changes and what will they have in store for the race?

"Phoenix has always been a great track and really didn't need much for changes, but the folks there went ahead and did some things that will be better in the long run," said Newman. "They weren't major changes or anything, but they did move the wall in Turn 2 out 12 feet and also put a tunnel in the middle of Turn 3 and 4 or somewhere in that area. The tunnel is going to be a big plus because it allows teams and drivers to come and go whenever cars are on the racetrack. That's going to be nice. It'll be a nice change, for sure.

"Not many teams tested at Phoenix before this coming weekend, but I know Tony Stewart was there after Charlotte and said only positive things about the track. From what I've heard, the track's been faster, even though it's been incredibly hot out there. I'm very interested in seeing if anything that has been done will make for any better racing on our part. Typically, Phoenix has been a track we've qualified pretty decent at, but never raced well on. I'm hoping that the experience we've gained there the last few years will work to our advantage this time around."

Newman's first PIR start didn't produce the results that ALLTEL team members were hoping for, but it wasn't because they lacked the effort. Before Newman ever took his first two qualifying laps at the one-mile oval, the team made two separate trips to test and get the best available data. His 10th-place qualifying effort was the highlight of the weekend. Lack of experience is basically what concluded the team's 41st-place finish.

Newman hasn't taken a hold of PIR like he has other tracks. His second start there in 2001 wasn't much better than the first. After qualifying 25th, he eventually got caught up in an altercation between Kurt Busch and Jimmy Spencer. The accident relinquished him to a 40th-place finish.
In last year's race, Newman found himself in familiar territory - at the front. But, after scoring his sixth pole of the season, the most of any competitor last season, he began struggling as the race progressed and went on to finish 18th. That was his best PIR finish to date.

"We definitely prepared all we could for our first race at Phoenix," said Newman. "We went out there two different times in order to get the best setup and get familiar with the track. Those two tests went well, but we were still basically going into it blind and didn't know what to expect. We opted not to test the following year, which might have bit us a bit because that race wasn't any better for us and certainly didn't live up to our expectations."

Newman doesn't want to make any mistakes this time around. With only three races left, this weekend's race is critical in the point standings.

"I don't know what it is with me and Phoenix, but I've never been able to get a good finish there," said Newman, who is currently sixth in the point standings. "Points are rewarded for having good, consistent races. We've lacked that in the past at Phoenix, but we hope to change that this weekend if we're going to close the gap on third-place. We'll go out there and do things the best we can and where we end up on Sunday is where we end up. We hope for a great finish and to get all the points we can."

PRS-048 is the car Newman will pilot this weekend. The car was raced only one time this season and that was at New Hampshire in September, where Newman dominated practice and qualifying, winning his seventh pole of the season. During the race, the car had a tight condition and Newman finished ninth.

"Phoenix is similar to Loudon, so we're going to bring the car we ran there in September," said Newman. "The car was really fast all weekend in practice and qualifying, but we missed the setup a tick for the race and the car was tight all day. We still finished ninth, so that isn't bad, but we'd like to hit it better this time around and leave Phoenix with good notes for next year."

Qualifying to set the 43-car field for the Checker Auto Parts 500 is scheduled to begin on Friday at 4:05 p.m. EST. Sunday's 312-mile, 312-lap race is set to take the green flag at 3:00 p.m. EST. The event will be televised live on NBC TV and MRN Radio will feature live radio coverage.

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