LOUDON, N.H. — Ryan Newman’s face was frozen with a look of incredulity. He could barely believe the first victory of his NASCAR Sprint Cup career had come at, of all places, New Hampshire Motor Speedway.
“I’ve always said that this was my least favorite racetrack,” Newman said. “For a long time.’’
Newman made no secret of that fact, either. The flat, 1.058-mile oval built in 1990 by Bob Bahre and christened as New Hampshire International Speedway was widely criticized by Cup drivers as a tough place to pass, where position was a premium because of the single-file nature of the racing.
When he met with the media after winning the rain-shortened New Hampshire 300 in 2002, Newman sat next to his then-crew chief, Matt Borland, and shook his head.
“New Hampshire?’’ he said to Borland. “Can you believe it?’’
They both laughed. New Hampshire. Who knew?
“I do remember that,’’ Newman said during a visit to Loudon last month.
Newman has practically owned the place after winning three career races at NHMS and setting, then resetting the track record during pole qualifications with a fast lap of 135.232 miles per hour in last July’s Lenox Industrial Tools 301, which he won. It was a particularly eventful triumph since his teammate and boss, Tony Stewart, finished as the runner-up.
Given his recent dominance at NHMS, track officials could very well recognize the 34-year-old driver from South Bend, Ind., by rebranding the property as Ryan Newman Motor Speedway.
“Yeah,’’ he said with a laugh. “We’ve done well here.’’
Never in his wildest dreams, though, did Newman imagine his name would become synonymous with this far-flung New England venue.
Given his druthers, would he have preferred to have won his first race elsewhere, at a track such as Daytona? Newman captured the most glittering victory of his 16 career Cup triumphs when he won the 2008 Daytona 500, delivering Roger Penske, known more for his dominance of the Indianapolis 500, his first triumph as an owner in NASCAR’s crown jewel.
“I don’t think we think about it that way,’’ Newman said. “You think about the places where we’d have more desire to win at — like Charlotte, Darlington, Daytona, Indianapolis — but these races still have a lot of importance to them.’’
Before his victory at Martinsville April 1, Newman had 15 victories on the Cup circuit. Three came at New Hampshire: in 2002, 2005, and 2011.
He might have been a four-time winner, joining Jeff Burton as the winningest driver at the track, were it not for an ill-timed pit stop in 2009 that came just before a deluge cut short the race and ushered Joey Logano to Victory Lane as a first-time Cup winner.
“You know what happened?’’ Newman asked.
He ran out of gas. “Yeah’’ Newman acknowledged, “but you know why it happened?’’
Why? “Because they never packed it full [of gas],’’ he said. “We did four tires and they jacked it up on the right side. When they jacked it up on the left side, they were supposed to come back and plug it in again, because the car’s at an angle and so it didn’t get the whole tube [filled].
“They didn’t come back and stab it again with fuel, so they never got it full of fuel. So, yeah, if we had got it full of fuel, we would’ve won. But we ran out two laps before the caution came out.’’
It was that miscue that cost him what would’ve been his third win in New Hampshire.
“Probably because of that one little mistake,’’ Newman said. “I could say that about a lot of racetracks, though.’’
But being a three-time winner at NHMS is no small feat, given the difficult nature of the racing in Loudon.
“I guess it goes along with the qualifying part of it,’’ Newman said. “We always qualify here really well. I know last year we won the pole and we won the race. But I don’t remember where we were in ’02 when we won. I don’t know if I started on the pole or not.’’
He did. It was the first of his track-record six pole victories at New Hampshire.
With his wife, Krissie, ready to deliver their second daughter, Newman will attempt to go for his seventh pole position Friday.
“It’s just a shift in responsibility,’’ Newman said of fatherhood. “It’s a little more complex than that, but that’s the simple answer. [Children] change your perspective on things, but they don’t change everything. You still have to do the things you always do. You still have the desire to do the things you’ve always done.
“To me, they don’t change everything; they just change the order in which you get to do those things. I’m no longer boss.’’
As if that wasn’t stressful enough, Newman was hit with the news this week that one of his primary sponsors, the US Army, would not be back with Stewart-Haas Racing next year, causing some speculation about Newman’s own status with the team this year, which coincides with the end of his contract.
Asked if having his name added to the team masthead — Stewart-Newman-Haas Racing — would be an enticement, Newman replied, “Not really, no. The hiring I could do, but the firing I couldn’t. I don’t think I could stomach firing 30-40-50 sometimes 100 people right before Christmas. Sometimes you have to in order to keep the other 250 [employees] alive and let them have a good Christmas.
“But I don’t know. I have a different heart when it comes to that stuff.’’
Newman would rather keep it simple. He would rather continue to race — and win — at flat mile ovals such as New Hampshire, where he has unexpectedly flourished.