LOUDON, N.H. - During the hour leading up to qualifying for the Sylvania 300 at New Hampshire International Speedway, drivers huddled on pit road and talked about who might finish second.
Just about everyone conceded Ryan Newman would be the fastest in time trials Friday. In fact, the only question was whether he would break his own track record.
That was answered with a lap of 133.357 mph, the fastest speed ever recorded for a stock car on the 1.058-mile oval.
"I just do the best I can," Newman said repeatedly after winning his seventh pole of the season.
In 71 career starts on the NASCAR Winston Cup Series, Newman has 14 poles and seven wins - including last week at Richmond, Va. - making him one of NASCAR's most successful newcomers. Only Tony Stewart, who won seven times in his first 61 races, has a better starting record in the sport's 55-year history.
"I enjoy qualifying because I get to attack the track one-on-one," Newman said. "It's me vs. the racetrack, and I don't have to worry about anything else there."
Newman set the track record at New Hampshire a year ago with a lap of 132.241 mph. Two days later, he won his first Winston Cup race after NASCAR finally ended a long day of intermittent rain and racing 93 laps short of the scheduled finish.
"Bottom line is, winning is just as awesome, no matter now you do it," Newman said. "If we go out Sunday and lead the most laps and win the race, it will be just as good.
"I've definitely learned a lot, especially since our first win. I'd say I've learned as much as these guys on the team, and that makes a big difference this year. It's not about the track being good to me; it's about doing good on the track."
Terry Labonte, who's surged into the top 10 in points for the first time in nearly four years by winning at Darlington, S.C., two weeks ago and finishing eighth last week at Richmond, Va., qualified on the outside pole. Although his lap of 132.780 mph was fast enough to also break Newman's track record from 2002, it wasn't nearly quick enough to challenge Newman.
"(Qualifying) is important, but the most important part is your strategy during the race and your track position, whether you get two tires, four tires, no tires," Labonte said. "That's what it comes down to. That's the biggest difference in the racing today vs. a few years ago. Just because you qualify well doesn't mean you're going to make the right calls in the pits on Sunday."
Despite a couple of fiery crashes and an on-board fire at Michigan earlier in the year that essentially knocked him out of contention for the series championship, Newman admitted his team has captured the momentum for the final 10 races of the season - momentum he hopes will carry over to 2004.
"It means a lot to the entire team," he said. "To me, it's another dot on the resume. We continue to stress our Fridays in qualifying, then work the rest of the week on race trim."
Reach Don Coble at email@example.com.