BROOKLYN, Mich. (AP) _ Ryan Newman thought the worst was over after he won at Michigan International Speedway. It wasn't, and two months later Newman is badly in need of another victory Sunday in the GFS Marketplace 400.
Little has gone right lately for the third-year Nextel Cup star, who led the series with eight victories last year and appeared ready to seriously contend for the title this year in NASCAR's top series.
Instead, after the first 22 races of the season, he has only that one win and is 12th in the standings.
Except for a third-place run last month at New Hampshire, Newman's Penske Racing South Dodge hasn't finished better than 12th in the seven races since his Michigan victory.
Worse, his 26th-place finish Sunday on the road course at Watkins Glen knocked Newman out of the top 10 with only four races remaining until the new, 10-race Chase for the Cup begins.
``The team and I are keeping our heads up, looking forward and concentrating on getting back inside the top 10 as soon as possible,'' Newman said. ``We set making the top 10 and winning the championship as our main goal before the season started, and that hasn't changed. We still believe that we can, and will, achieve that goal.''
First, though, he has to remain eligible for the championship run. Only the top 10 in the standings after the first 26 events will be eligible for the title run.
``The points battle is getting more and more heated, and now we're on the outside looking in,'' said Newman, out of the top 10 for the first time since April.
He goes into the weekend trailing new 10th-place holder Jeremy Mayfield by 29 points. That number isn't too daunting, especially coming back to the track where his No. 12 Intrepid made up a lost lap on the way to the checkered flag in June.
Getting back in the top 10 won't be easy, though, with Mayfield and rookie Kasey Kahne ahead of him in the standings and Mark Martin, Dale Jarrett and Jamie McMurray all lined up close behind him in the contest for the 10th spot. Only 99 points separate Mayfield from 15th-place McMurray.
``This is going to be a crucial weekend for us,'' said McMurray, last year's top Cup rookie. ``We were able to gain a little ground on the top 10 in points last weekend at Watkins Glen, but we need to come out of the box strong this weekend in Michigan and, hopefully, get even closer to making the cutoff.''
Even though he finally made it back to the top 10 for the first time since March, Mayfield knows his position is far from secure.
``I've noticed that everyone we've been racing has been running well, and we're all fighting for the same spot and that's pretty cool,'' Mayfield said. ``There's a lot of great race teams out there right now that are running good and you can tell that with this new points system, that everybody from all the way back has stepped it up and has their programs running good.''
Another Michigan victory would go a long way toward helping Newman's cause.
``The win there in June meant a lot to us, and seemed to get the monkey off of our backs as far as needing a win,'' he said. ``Another win there on Sunday would be just as important to us.''