Ryan Newman is one of NASCAR's few college-educated drivers, having earned a bachelor of science degree in vehicle structural engineering from Purdue in 2001. But Newman's book smarts apparently weren't enough to convince him to leave well enough alone during qualifying for the Dickies 500 at Texas Motor Speedway on Friday.
Newman whipped around the 1.5-mile oval at a blistering 192.947 miles per hour to win the pole for Sunday's 500-miler, the eighth race in NASCAR's 10-race postseason. Then, instead of shutting off the engine and pulling into the garage as most racers would, Newman stood on the accelerator and stayed out for a second lap in hopes of topping himself.
As he rounded Turn 3, Newman's Dodge shot up the racetrack and smacked the wall on the right side, damaging it so badly that he'll need to use a backup car Sunday. That car, built by Penske Racing in 2002, is vintage by NASCAR standards. Newman will have two practice sessions Saturday to fine-tune its handling.
Under NASCAR rules, Newman will be credited with winning the pole -- his eighth of the season -- but he'll have to drop to the rear of the 43-car field for the start because he won't be racing the same car that he qualified.
According to Newman, a blown right-front tire hurled him into the wall. "It was a pretty good lick, but the safety barriers were the reason I was able to walk away," said Newman, who's fifth in the championship standings.
Four-time champion Jeff Gordon, whose sub-par season left him shut out of NASCAR's postseason, qualified second in his No. 24 Chevrolet (192.397 mph). On the heels of Gordon's victory at Martinsville, Va., two weeks ago, the front-row starting spot is just the affirmation Gordon is seeking as he prepares for an assault on the 2006 Nextel Cup title with a new crew chief, 26-year-old Steve Letarte.
Third-place qualifier Matt Kenseth actually made out better than Gordon at the end of the day. After Newman drops to the rear of the field, Kenseth will inherit the pole-sitter's spot (inside front row) when the inside line of cars advances one row.
With the Texas superspeedway fast and gripping, there's bound to be plenty of passing over Sunday's 334 laps. But with so much at stake as a tight points race winds down, starting from the pole carries several advantages. Among them: a quick chance to earn five bonus points for leading a lap, and first choice in pit-stall selection for race day. Fortunately for Newman, picking the prime pit stall is one perk he'll get to keep despite having to give up the front-row start.
"I really felt my first lap was really good, but I felt I left a little bit on the table," Newman said. "They give you two laps in qualifying, and you never know if the first lap is going to be better or the second lap. There's no reason not to try."
Few drivers share that philosophy, however -- particularly those in contention for a championship and loathe to risk wrecking a great car.
"Whether I have a first great [lap] or not, I pull in after the first one," Gordon said. "There are very few places that we actually go to where the second lap is better than the first. Now Ryan is a rare breed. Usually not only does he get the pole on the first lap, but he gets it on the second lap, too. He usually backs it up."
With a 107-point deficit to Stewart and three races remaining, Newman's a long shot to win his first Nextel Cup title. Conventional wisdom casts it as a three-way race for the spoils among Stewart, Jimmie Johnson (43 points back) and Greg Biffle (75 points back).