Ryan Newman loves to fish, and he and teammate Kurt Busch will be trying to land the big one this weekend at Daytona International Speedway. For all of Penske Racing South's success over the years, the team never has won a points-paying race at Daytona or Talladega.
Newman, though, was third in this year's opener at Daytona, and Busch was running strong until he got caught up in a late-race accident. Newman and Busch drafted well together in February, their first race as teammates.
Newman -- who finished a strong second last week on the road course in Sonoma, Calif. -- said he knows working the draft well again will be crucial Saturday.
"Drafting is such an important part of racing at Daytona. If you can't find anyone to work with, you'll never be able to move up to the front," Newman said. "On the other hand, some people find it better to stick around in the back until later in the race because the cars are so close together and one little wiggle of a car could cause half the field to wreck."
Busch knows all about that after he ended up with a battered car at Daytona. It has been that type of season for both Penske drivers, as the team simply wasn't clicking to start the year.
Asked to sum up the season as if it were a fishing trip, Newman readily took the bait.
"It definitely rained at some point. I'd say a few times we've caught a couple of fish, no real big fish, but a couple of keepers," Newman said. "We've had to look really hard for the fish. The fish finder tells us they're there, but they're not biting. It looks like the moon phase is coming in, and they should start biting pretty soon."
With Penske Racing South closing down its No. 77 team after last season -- rebuilding what was Rusty Wallace's team with new personnel, including crew chief Roy McCauley for Busch, and making changes on Newman's team -- that left the team struggling early in the year.
The wreck at Daytona left Busch low in the standings from the outset, and he's still trying to gain ground. He hopes for better things this time around.
"We know we left a lot out there on the table back in February. We can't wait to get back down there and give it another shot at finally winning a restrictor plate race," Busch said. "Starting the season off like that really put us in a hole as far as the points went.
"But we're coming back, scratching and clawing to get all the points we can and giving it our best shot to get back up there and make the Chase."
Newman said his third-place finish at Daytona wasn't a true indication the team was ready to hit the ground running to start the year. He sees more room for improvement, but said he knows things are better than they were in February and March.
"In fishing terms, at the beginning of the year, we were throwing the wrong lure. It's hard to get the fish to bite if you're throwing the wrong lure," Newman said. "Once we got the right lure on, you've got to throw it in the right spot, and we're finally getting around to doing that. The fish are there and they're starting to bite, which is what I was alluding to as far as the moon phase changes.
"The bottom line is we were trying to fish but we weren't fishing really hard at the beginning of the season. We were trying hard, but we weren't getting the results. Basically, if you look at the 2 [Busch] and 12 [Newman] efforts, we've definitely rounded the corner and it's getting a little bit better as far as our performances and qualifying and whatnot. That's a good sign for any Penske racing fan. It's just a matter of us from this point forward putting the right effort forward, which we always do, and getting the results, which we don't always do."
Newman and crew chief Matt Borland have been together for years, but that doesn't mean things always get smoother as time goes by. This year, while they've been struggling to get the Dodge Charger to Newman's liking, communication has been an issue.
Newman, though, said he sees things turning around, and he hopes that continues at Daytona.
"When you're not running well and you're not performing like you have in the past and you know you can or you have before, and things are not making sense, it's hard to fight through the things that aren't making sense," he said. "If I say something to Matt and tell him, 'This is what's happening,' and he says, 'It didn't happen that way in the past,' or 'Why does it feel that way? Why doesn't this affect the car the way it used to?'
"It's hard to fight through those situations. It's hard to not fault the other person, and that's been something that's been difficult for us this year because of our performance and because of struggling the way we have. From a timing standpoint, we haven't been able to put the efforts forward to qualify [up front], to have a better pit selection, to have a better race situation. Just the whole equation has been off balance for us a little bit. That's why the communication part, it's good to be able to get it back when everything is making sense like it did [at Sonoma]. That's what I was alluding to. There are no problems outside of that."
Mark Ashenfelter is an associate editor at NASCAR Scene magazine, which has a Web site at www.scenedaily.com