Rookie is back home again in Indiana for Brickyard 400

Friday, August 2nd 2002, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) _ Ryan Newman is a Hoosier and Winston Cup rookie. He would love nothing more than to become part of the storied history of Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

``Indianapolis would be special to me even if I wasn't from Indiana,'' he said. ``It's one of the places I dreamed about racing at as I was growing up.''

Newman is from South Bend and attended Purdue, where he earned a bachelor's degree last summer in vehicle structural engineering. The Speedway is as special to him as it is to Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart, the only other Hoosiers on the Winston Cup circuit.

Gordon has three wins on the track. Like Stewart, Newman will be looking for his first victory on the track Sunday in the Brickyard 400. Newman was in the race last year, starting fifth before a crash relegated him to 31st place.

``We had a good start there last year and even though we didn't have the finish we wanted it was a good showing for us,'' he said. ``We've learned a lot since then and were excited to go back.''

Still searching for his first points-paying victory _ he won The Winston, NASCAR's all-star race in May _ Newman is sneaking up on Jimmie Johnson in the race for top rookie honors.

After falling far off Johnson's pace in the rookie standings, Newman has closed within 13 points entering the Brickyard.

Johnson, a flashy 26-year-old Californian, has two victories this season and is a constant companion to Gordon, who owns part of his Chevrolet.

The 24-year-old Newman is low-key, hanging around his No. 12 Ford at the track while trying to feel his way around the Winston Cup garage.

They do have one thing in common, Newman said, when it comes to racing.

``Where there is a hole is where we go,'' Newman said. ``Sometimes, we may not know any better, and we stick our nose in spots where we shouldn't, but we still try.''

Now he's hitting a stretch where he could have an advantage over Johnson. While Johnson has developed a rabid fan base that makes it difficult for him to navigate around the race track, Newman has maintained a quiet presence.

``The things you learn the first time around are the simple things, like where is the garage area, where is the rest room, which way do I go to get here or there,'' Newman said. ``Stuff like that makes it simple when you come back the second time.''

As the series hits the second half, Newman will return to 12 tracks on which he already has raced.

He proved how powerful familiarity can be the last two weekends, finishing fifth at Pocono Raceway and New Hampshire International Speedway _ two of the more difficult NASCAR tracks.

Newman has finished higher than Johnson in four of the last six races, and although Johnson is still third in the series standings, Newman has climbed from 16th to 12th the past three weeks.

Still, Newman said he's a long way from feeling comfortable every week.

``You can feel that way, but something else can come up and bite you again,'' he said. ``As long as we keep trying our hardest and giving it all we've got, that's all we can do, whether we finish or not finish or have a win.''