This was supposed to be kind of a next-step Sprint Cup season for Ryan Newman.
But Newman knows that unless he notches a great finish in today's Carfax 400 at Michigan International Speedway, his 2010 step could be backward.
"We're on the outside looking in, and our goal is to make this Chase," Newman, 32, said this week. "To do that, we have to have a solid day at Michigan."
Newman was a bit of a comeback story in 2009.
After three straight disappointing seasons with Penske Racing — seasons in which he missed the Chase for the Championship and had one victory (though it was a big one, the 2008 Daytona) — he signed with Stewart-Haas Racing, the team Tony Stewart was launching.
Newman didn't win any races last year, but he was competitive again; he had 15 top-10 finishes and only failed to finish once, his fewest since going full time with Penske in 2002.
Best of all, he made the Chase.
At Daytona in February, confidence was high around the No. 39 team.
"We learned last year what we are capable of when we were performing to our ability with a lot of top fives in a row, and that's tough to do in this sport," Newman said. "So I look forward to 2010 because of the things we experienced in 2009 and created as a team and as an organization."
Newman arrives in Brooklyn, Mich., with his hopes for attaining the goals of making the Chase and clawing to the Sprint Cup championship hanging by a thread.
With four races to go to get into the top 12 in the standings, he is 83 points behind Mark Martin, the current bubble driver.
Newman not only will have to hop over Martin and 13th-place Clint Bowyer, but he must also keep an eye on Jamie McMurray, who is 11 points behind him.
Newman has something only one of those other three guys (Martin) has: a victory at Michigan. Newman has two, in fact, and although he posted them six and seven years ago, and in Penske Dodges, it shows he does know how to handle Cup cars on the wide 2-mile oval.
"To have a good run at Michigan," Newman said, "there are definitely a couple of key things that you have to have. The first thing is speed. You have to have horsepower to get around this ultrafast racetrack. …
"The second key is handling. The handling of the race car is crucial, especially in Turns 2 and 3. The car can't get too tight off 2 or be too loose off 3."
The series will be making its second stop of the summer at Michigan. In June, Newman started well but ran into something he cannot afford to run into today: bad luck.
"I think we hung around the top 10 for most of the day," he said. "Unfortunately, we ran over a piece of debris on the racetrack, and that really changed the complexion of the race for us."
Newman called MIS "fun" this week. But unless he can log his first top-10 finish in six weeks, he might be calling it a major step backward.