Ryan Newman joined Tony Stewart in his new racing venture last season motivated by his desire to have fun again and contend for a championship.

So far, he’s achieved the first goal and is getting closer to the second.

“Everybody has done their part to battle through the things that we didn’t get right the first part of the season,” Newman said in an interview this week. “And now that we’ve got those things going better for us, I wouldn’t say it’s turned around; it’s just gotten better.”

Stewart, a two-time Sprint Cup champion, is getting most of the attention for the success he and his team are having in his first year as an owner-driver in NASCAR’s Sprint Cup Series.

Newman, meanwhile, has flown under the radar despite getting some much-needed results on the track and showing that the owner’s faith in him was warranted.

Stewart is third in the points after 10 events, and Newman is 10th, surging after a slow start to climb 23 spots in seven weeks.

While Stewart said he “backed into one” with his second-place finish Saturday night at Richmond International Raceway, Newman ran up front all night and came home with a season-best fourth.

It was his second consecutive top-five finish – the first time he’s done that since late in the 2007 season – and made it seem possible that it could be sooner rather than later that he gets to wheel his Stewart-Haas Chevrolet onto the area of black and white known as Victory Lane.

Perhaps even more telling for Newman is that he was somewhat bummed with the finish. After all, he led four times for 45 laps and felt like he had a shot until a late-race mishap occurred when a he got caught up in a jumble during a restart with 87 laps to go and nudged Mark Martin.

“We didn’t get out front when we needed to,” he said. “… At the same time, it’s been a long time since I got two top-fives in a row, so you’ve got to look at the positive side of the coin too.”

It’s a positive side that some weren’t sure Newman would provide.

Newman’s career has slowed significantly since 2003, when he led the series with eight victories and 11 poles. He’s won just four times since, and his victory over Stewart in last season’s season-opening Daytona 500 was his first in three seasons. He’s not won since, or even come close.

But he prefers looking ahead.

“It’s definitely been a while,” he said, “but I know why I didn’t succeed and win races towards the end of last season, but I’m happy where I’m at, building what I feel is a winning team for 2009.

“If we keep doing what we’re doing, we’ll get what we want.”

That, clearly is that trip to Victory Lane, and he said one of the benefits of working for Stewart is that the entire organization in striving for the same thing, and there’s not even a gentlemen’s bet between the drivers about which one will get to sip the champagne first.

“There’s no sense in that,” Newman said of an inside competition. “We’ve been so busy doing our thing we don’t think of it as that. Really, just the biggest thing is getting to Victory Lane for all these people at Stewart-Haas and I guess to kind of make that statement.”

Stewart has said he will only wear his owner’s hat during the week, and that on weekends he’s strictly a driver. But that owner role was very noticeable on Saturday night when he surveyed his team’s strong runs.

“I can’t wait to get to the shop on Monday and see the smiles on their faces,” he said of the members of both drivers’ teams. “This is a process that we continue to grow and build.”

There are challenges still ahead, however, most notably sponsorship.

Newman’s car is sponsored for 23 races this season by the U.S. Army, and he said wearing those colors has given him a different perspective than a typical NASCAR pitchman would have when he pulls on his uniform.

“I’m not representing a company,” he said. “I’m making a sales pitch, but it’s about people and that’s what’s different. It’s been different for me to work with that part of it. I’m honored to represent over a million people that are fighting for our freedom and I’m presented with the opportunity to ensure that we’ll have armed forces for the future.”

The Army has reported having some success at recruiting booths set up at tracks, but Newman said there’s no chance the Army would be able to sponsor his No. 39 car for the remaining 13 races this year.

He does hope the Army returns as a full sponsor next season.

In the interim, there’s one of 12 spots in the Chase for the championship to focus on securing, and maybe a few races to win.

“It is just coming together,” Stewart said, “one piece at a time.”

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