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Newman navigates new format

Ryan Newman has always been a hard-nosed racer. At times, the Indiana native has also been a hard-headed driver.


Equipped with an engineering degree from Purdue, he's had some very definite advice for crew chiefs when it came to how his cars were set up. On Sunday in Phoenix, Newman won his first race in nearly four years in NASCAR's Cup series by listening to his crew chief's advice.

Stay out of the pits and take the overtime restart on worn tires, said crew chief Luke Lambert. Ordinarily a tough guy to pass, hence his hard-nosed reputation, Newman's restart as the leader was so deft he didn't need to make his car a foot or two wider over the course of the final two laps.

After running no higher than sixth all day before the overtime restart, Newman pulled off the fourth straight surprise ending of the inaugural Monster Energy NASCAR Cup season with his first victory since July of 2013.

Originally, the idea of this year's stage racing was to make the middle of races that often run 500 miles or 500 kilometers, as in Phoenix, more interesting. Instead, the stage finishes have been remarkably predictable and the checkered-flag finishes more like the ending of a whodunit.

"What won the race is when he drove off in turn three on that final lap," said Newman's team owner Richard Childress, watching from atop one of his haulers in the infield and worrying about his driver's worn tires. "I thought, 'Man, if it sticks, it's going to be good. If it don't, it's going to be ugly.'"

Newman stuck the landing, enabling Childress's team to win its first race since 2013.

To borrow some of the vernacular from the collegiate ranks like "true freshman," this was the first true upset among this year's late-race turnarounds.

In Daytona, Kurt Busch led only the last lap -- but he had been knocking regularly on the door when it came to plate racing. Brad Keselowksi stole a march in Atlanta's closing laps, but he had four victories last year. Martin Truex came back to overtake Keselowski two laps from the finish in Las Vegas -- after leading the most laps. But Newman? Where have he and the Childress team been?

Richard Childress Racing has been slightly lost since Kevin Harvick departed for Stewart-Haas Racing in 2014. In the four seasons prior to Harvick's departure, the driver won 12 races at RCR. After arriving at SHR, Harvick again won 12 races -- and a championship -- over the course of three seasons.

Meanwhile, Newman -- who swapped seats with Harvick -- has not scored a victory since joining RCR until Sunday's round at Phoenix.

So go the fortunes of team chemistry. While Harvick joined a team that included former champions Tony Stewart and Kurt Busch at SHR, Newman arrived on a team where Childress's grandson, rookie Austin Dillon, and Paul Menard, who brings sponsorship from his family's business, were teammates.

Since then, Newman -- a runner-up to Harvick in the 2014 championship despite a winless season -- has been the only driver at RCR with more than one career Cup victory. The win Sunday was his 18th and first since winning the Brickyard 400 for Stewart's team in July 2013.

"There's a lot of guys in this sport that have never won," Newman said. "Going a long time without winning, you have confidence in your mind that you can do it. There's guys that go their whole career and never win, and good drivers.

"You just got to stay humble. This sport, you walk away from (a race), there's one guys that wins, 39 losers. You have to be humble walking into it that you're probably not going to win that day. Odds are against you."

Newman went on to suggest that the days of one driver dominating a track, such as Harvick has done at Phoenix, are over because of the new format. Harvick finished sixth and failed to lead a lap, although much of his difficulties could be traced to this year's new, lower downforce rules and the SHR team's switch from Chevy to Ford.

As in Las Vegas, the wild card was a driver having mechanical difficulties in the late stages -- possibly from racing harder earlier in races to win the stage points and playoff bonus points available.

In this case, it was Stage 1 winner Joey Logano blowing a tire and crashing out as a result of overheated brakes with six laps remaining. That also ruined the day for race leader Kyle Busch. After leading the most laps, the caution for Logano's incident meant Busch subsequently finished third behind the winning pit strategy of RCR.

It was an interesting irony that Newman won RCR's first race since Harvick was victorious at Phoenix in the fall race of 2013. But it was quite the deeper, darker irony that Logano once again managed to ruin Busch's day -- although it was more a matter of fate this time versus a fender in the door on the final lap at Las Vegas.

For those scoring at home, Busch could be acknowledged for the better follow-up to last week's fisticuff -- singular -- with Logano. (Busch's long arm made one, long-distance glancing contact, apparently.)

Prior to the race, Busch sarcastically declined to answer most questions about the Las Vegas incident before stating his belief that Logano hit his car on purpose to knock it into a spin. Logano came off as wimpy by sending Busch the computer traces of his throttle to prove he was merely trying to get around the bottom of the track instead of intentionally using Busch's car as a carom.

One wishes Logano would man up and just say something realistic and believable such as: "Yeah, maybe I was a little over-aggressive. But if a guy hits you to pass you, why should I be overly careful about contact while getting the position back?"

Perhaps Logano's less-than-believable account led one Twitter wag to suggest he send Busch computer data to explain why his tire exploded with six laps remaining to bring out that last caution that cost Busch so dearly.

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