Penske Racing's Ryan Newman finished top of the Rookie standings following his 22nd top ten finish of the 2002 season in Sunday's Ford 400 at the Homestead-Miami Speedway.

The 24-year-old driver from South Bend Indiana emerged victorious by a final margin of just 23 points (344-321) over Jimmie Johnson after a classic season-long duel between two future Champions.

Although the 2002 Raybestos Rookie of the Year will officially be crowned at NASCAR's season-ending banquet later this year, Newman will almost certainly get the nod despite only winning one race as opposed to Johnson's three and finishing one position lower than the Hendrick Motorsports driver in the overall Winston Cup driver's standings (Johnson 5th, Newman 6th).

Newman also created another 'first' when he won the prestigious non-Championship 'The Winston' event at Lowe's Motor Speedway in May, the first rookie to do so.

With Newman and Johnson the only two RotY candidates competing at most of the races this year, the emphasis was certainly on quality not quantity and boy did those two provide quality at virtually every one of the 36 races on the Winston Cup schedule.

Raising the bar almost immeasurably for the Rookie class of 2003 and beyond, Newman and Johnson combined for four victories, eleven poles (5 for Johnson, 6 for Newman) and a total of 43 top ten finishes. And while Johnson took more of the in-season spotlight as he led the Winston Cup standings as late as Kansas in September, Newman seemed to have one of the cars to beat at virtually every race of the season.

Both drivers remained in with a shout of the Winston Cup title right up until the final month of the season when Tony Stewart hit his stride and after 36 grueling races, Johnson finished just SEVEN points ahead of Newman in the overall standings, both within 210 of Winston Cup Champion Stewart, an incredible feat for two rookies despite their respective teams and cars.

After finishing sixth in Sunday's Ford 400 at Homestead, Newman gave his initial thoughts on the Raybestos Rookie of the Year title and his classic duel with Johnson.

"I didn't know about the Raybestos Rookie of the Year deal, but that's cool," said a rather tired looking Newman. "All season it's been a great season. Even when we struggled we struggled as a team and we fought back. Whether it was an engine failure or me punching a hole in the radiator, we constantly fought back and that's important to me as a rookie.

"To run so well at all the different race tracks, that was important to me. Some of the racetracks we had never been too, especially the road courses, so to accomplish some of the things we did there was really great. I just want to thank everyone from ALLTEL, Mobil and Sony and Penske Racing and all the people in the shop. It's a great team and a great honour for me to be able to drive and sit in that seat."

Newman and Johnson with both remain with their current teams for their sophomore Winston Cup season in 2003 and after being paired with the #48 Lowe's Hendrick Motorsports driver all year, Newman has a great amount of admiration and respect for the prot?g? of four-time NWC Champ Jeff Gordon.

"I didn't know a whole lot about him," he conceded of his pre-2002 relationship with Johnson. "We raced together the 15 times last year in the Busch Series and a couple times in the Cup Series, but, overall, I knew that he beat me in Chicago and I beat him in Michigan.

"We were never enemies. We never had any contact on the racetrack or off. We've always admired each other's position this year as far as the respect we had for each other's team. I know my crew chief, Matt, and his crew chief, Chad, got along really well despite the competitiveness on and off the racetrack. As a whole, I think everybody on the 48 team and everybody on the 12 team had a lot of respect for each other all year."

In what will be called the 'Year of the Young Gun' for some time, Newman and Johnson were not the only 'rookie' drivers to score a victory in 2002 as Jamie McMurray drove to victory in just his second ever Winston Cup start in October's UAW-GM Quality 500 at Lowe's Motor Speedway.

McMurray, who was a substitute driver for the injured Sterling Marlin in the #40 Chip Ganassi owned team, will start 2003 as one of the favourites for the 2003 Raybestos Rookie of the Year behind the wheel of the new Ganassi owned Havoline sponsored team. However McMurray and his RotY rivals next year will be hard pushed to emulate Messer's Newman and Johnson.