DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Ryan Newman wasn't in the best mood early Saturday afternoon. He was downright ticked, to put it in words that don't violate the Disney policy. His right-rear tire had blown in the final practice for the Daytona 500, sending him to his third car in 10 days at Daytona International Speedway.
Then he met Steve and Christine Deuker.
The NASCAR Hall of Fame flew the couple from frigid Minneapolis to sunny South Florida to meet the driver they adopted eight years ago when their 18-year-old son, Joseph, committed suicide.
They didn't pick the defending 500 champion because of anything he'd done on the track. He was only a rookie at the time. They picked him because he looked, talked and displayed some of the same mannerisms as their son -- down to putting his hands in his pockets when he talked.
Now you're probably wondering how that got them behind Newman's No. 39 hauler on Saturday. It started when Steve saw an ad for the HOF's commemorative brick program.
He thought purchasing the concrete slab and having it placed in front of the new NASCAR shrine that will open in 2010 would be the perfect way to let Newman know how much they appreciate him and keep their son's memory alive.
The inscription is touching enough to bring a casual observer to tears. It says, "To Ryan Newman: Your demeanor reflects a soul u never met. In you we see our son, Joseph Held."
Steve framed the certificate that came with the brick and mailed it to Newman. The driver was so touched that he called HOF officials and offered to host the couple at a race.
And here they were, standing behind the U.S. Army hauler with their hero.
"I was touched," Newman said as he recalled getting the certificate. "I had just gotten home and had just opened the box and was like, 'What is this?' We get packages all the time. This one kind of caught me off guard. It really caught me off guard when I opened it up. It was a shocker."
Newman didn't pass his response off to a secretary or public relations assistant. He put the letter on his desk and responded in person by e-mail.
Then it was the Deukers' turn to be shocked.
"I'm just so happy I didn't burst [into tears]," Christine said.
For several years Newman had been her therapy. A high school teacher, she couldn't wait for the weekend to watch him qualify, do interviews and drive.
"It brought that anticipation where I looked forward to the weekend instead of making a list to keep myself busy," she said. "I just lived to see him on camera, to see him smile and talk."
To talk to him personally was like a dream come true.
"Every time I saw him I wanted to tell him and say something," said Christine, who has attended other races and race events where Newman was present. "But it's a hard thing to do. You only have a minute. You don't want to be the creepy stalker."
An hour earlier, Newman was ready to stalk Goodyear officials responsible for the blown tire that he felt was responsible for wrecking himself and teammate/owner Tony Stewart 12 laps into practice.
The Deukers put everything back into perspective.
"I can separate what happened on the race track from here," Newman said. "I have to. You have to smile and go on, but inside it's gut-wrenching."
But it's not as gut-wrenching as losing a son. It's not so gut-wrenching that you can put aside the people that live and die by what you do for a living, particularly in this tough economic climate.
"Ultimately, we're here for the fans," Newman said.
And on his day, Newman had no bigger fans than the Deukers.
"Being able to buy that brick," Christine said, "allowed us to put that story in stone so I don't have to feel like it's evaporated and gone."