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On the right track
The Associated Press

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. - For some drivers, winning the Daytona 500 is the goal. Ryan Newman considers his win in NASCAR's Super Bowl a good start to an even bigger ambition.

'Honestly, the main goal right now is to win the Sprint Cup,' Newman said Monday, less than 24 hours after earning the biggest victory of his life. 'We've got a lot of work ahead of us, that being the first race and going to 36 races. Without a doubt, our main effort and our main focus is to win that Cup.'

Newman's victory in the 50th edition of The Great American Race came with a big push on the last lap from Penske Racing teammate Kurt Busch and gave team owner Roger Penske a win he has coveted since he first arrived in NASCAR in 1972.

Just as important, it redeemed Penske's faith in Newman, whose star had faded over the past two seasons as he and the team struggled in the Cup series.

Sunday was the 13th Cup victory of Newman's career, but his first in 81 races, dating to September 2005 in New Hampshire. The 30-year-old from South Bend, Ind., also failed to make the Chase for the Championship each of the past two seasons after finishing no worse than sixth in the points in his first four full years in NASCAR's top series.

'I kind of had to adjust,' Newman said. 'I mean, the end of 2005 and 2006 were humbling seasons for me. To know what we had done in the past and to have, not just myself, but other people question how good you are and you were, that's humbling.'

He added: 'I was only frustrated because of the results. You try so hard and you end up racing for the lucky dog (the position to get back on the lead lap) instead of the win, and that was extremely difficult.

'We struggled with the race car in 2006, but our engines were great. In 2007, we got the car better and we had a couple of engine failures. ... There's no hard feelings in any way. Everybody goes through those types of cycles.'

Penske, who has enjoyed much success in open-wheel racing with 14 poles and 14 victories in the Indianapolis 500, said he never lost faith in Newman. After all, Penske has been through tough times before, even with his Indy car effort.

'I relate it a little to our Indy car seasons when we were struggling and people thought we had kind of lost our way,' Penske said. 'But I think we didn't have the car that was as competitive and, in many cases, we were rattling around in the back of the field.'

In the fall of 2006, Penske knew something had to be done.

The Captain had a heart-to-heart talk at Texas Motor Speedway with Newman and then-team president Don Miller, Newman's mentor and good friend.

'I came up to Ryan and Don Miller and said, 'We need to change up something. It's like a business, it's broken.'" Penske said.

One reason for the team's slump was the Dodges they were racing were not the best aerodynamically.

"You can't tell the press or the fans it's the car,' Penske said. 'Other people have cars, too, and we just didn't have a handle on it. I think that was one of the things that maybe had us not where we wanted to be.

'But no one gave up. We certainly knew that we could be competitive, and we have been competitive, we just haven't been executing at the end like we did yesterday.'

To get things going in the right direction, Penske put Newman together with crew chief Mike Nelson, who has since been elevated to Penske Racing's vice president of operations, and the team gained some momentum. When Nelson moved up to his new position last November, Roy McCauley took over as Newman's crew chief.

McCauley, who had taken a leave of absence from the team last year to be with his wife, Amy, as she fought a winning battle with Leukemia, has a similar engineering background to his driver. The two hit it off immediately and the big win Sunday was just the latest evidence of how well they have meshed.