Ryan Newman's 37th-place finish in the Winston Cup season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway wasn't what he and his ALLTEL team were banking on to close out what they felt was a great season overall, but all involved are already looking forward to the start of next year's inaugural Nextel Cup campaign.

The beginning and ending of the 2003 season certainly doesn't speak for the remarkable year Newman had and his Matt Borland-led team experienced, even if the middle portion was something of success whirlwind.

"This year was definitely a challenge for the ALLTEL team, but we bounced back from a lot of adversity early in the year," said Newman who finished sixth in the final Winston Cup point standings, 311 points behind champion Matt Kenseth, "We were away from home a lot this year, with testing and the 36 races.

"I'm not going to sit here and say I'm totally happy with how the year ended up because I'm a bit disappointed with what happened at Homestead, but we won a lot of races and poles, which makes me happy. I didn't know where we'd end up. We had a tough first half, but the second half was phenomenal and I know we built momentum to work with for next year."

The Indiana-native earned 4711 championship points and posted a series leading eight race wins. Despite six DNFs, Newman raced to 17 top-fives, 21 top-tens and, for the second straight season, he also won the Bud Pole Award for most poles earned in a season, with eleven in total.

Newman's season started upside down when his #12 ALLTEL Dodge flipped over during the Daytona 500. The youngster walked away uninjured, but left the NASCAR 'Super Bowl' with a 43rd-place finish going into the second race of the season at Rockingham.

The next four races showed Newman's Daytona 500 incident didn't affect his driving abilities, but the finishes were still not up to par. He posted two top-tens, two 14th-place finishes and a 22nd-place finish before grabbing his first win of the season at Texas Motor Speedway.

The March win gave credence that Newman and the ALLTEL team were back on track. Winning the Texas race was a huge boost for the team, but the next four races were devastating to their status in the points, as they recorded four consecutive DNFs. Newman finished 39th at Talladega after cutting a tyre on lap three and triggered a giant crash. At Martinsville, a brake problem developed leaving him 38th on the board. He posted a 42nd-place finish at California, after getting crashed by Steve Park on the first lap of the race, before the rear end gear burned at Richmond, leaving him with a 39th-place finish.

As if the string of bad luck wasn't enough for Newman, he had dropped to 27th in the point standings.

"Let's just say the first half of the season wasn't anything I'd like to do over again," Newman admitted, "Daytona was pretty bad and we destroyed the speedway car that we needed to use at Talladega six weeks later. A new car had to be built, so that was tough on the guys at the shop because building a speedway car isn't a fun or easy job.

"We picked up the pieces of Daytona and had decent finishes up through Talladega. We won our first race at Texas, which was obviously the highlight up to that point. The downside was that string of DNFs - they killed us. The guys were down, you could tell, but they kept fighting back week after week. Eventually, we got back on the horse and showed everyone what the ALLTEL team is made of.

"Falling to 27th in the points was one of the most disappointing times for me personally. No driver wants to be that far back. You're always thinking about finishing the season at least in the top ten and going to New York.

"We struggled as a team and fought back and ended up with what I consider to have been a pretty successful year. Last year, it was engine failures that bit us, this year, it was mostly weird luck that we really couldn't have prevented. The tyre at Talladega was a fluke and there isn't a team out there that tested more than we did for Martinsville and we still ended up with brake problems. That's just the way it goes. The gear problem at Richmond and the wreck on the very first lap at California - they were just crazy things."

It wasn't until the Coca-Cola 600 at Lowe's Motor Speedway that Newman looked to be heading back in the right direction. After winning his third pole at the famed track, the rain-shortened race gave Newman his second top-five finish at LMS, and he then went on to win the next week at Dover. Not only did he win from the Bud pole, but also he proved his physical powers by driving the last 188 laps of the race with no power steering.

He showed off his road course skills the next week at Infineon Speedway posting a fifth-place finish. However, bad luck struck once again the next week at Michigan. Newman started the race on the front row, and the ALLTEL Dodge was strong and finally took the lead. However, on lap 37, the #12 car burst into flames, ending Newman's day with a 41st-place finish.

Once again, Newman soldiered on. During the months of July and August, he posted five top-fives and seven top-tens in just ten races. It was during this stretch that he made his way back into the top ten in the point standings.

"We had a lot of great runs during the summer months and really that's where we turned everything around," Newman recalled, "We ran well at almost every track we went to. Even Daytona in July - we finished 22nd, but we finished and took the car home in one piece for a change. We managed to accomplish a lot this year and won poles and races doing it. I just want to thank everyone from ALLTEL, Mobil, 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 week after week and do what I love."

In the last eleven races of 2003, Newman won five more poles and scored three additional wins. He won at Richmond, made it a sweep for the year at Dover and took the last victory at Kansas Speedway in September.

"We had a great showing all year and I feel like we learned a lot," Newman concluded, "Everybody at Penske Racing did a fantastic job of giving me the tools I need to win races. We fought back from 27th in points to finish sixth, so I guess that was a great race in itself this year. We'll look back on 2003 as another learning experience that will make our ALLTEL team even stronger on into 2004 and the future."

 

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