There are some observers who say that Ryan Newman should not be in the Chase for the Sprint Cup, much less one of the four drivers who are eligible to win this year’s championship.
Why? Because he has not won a race. And wasn’t this new Chase format designed to reward victory? It seems unreasonable for a driver who has not won to join three who have in the Chase’s final round at Homestead.
Yes, Newman hasn’t won. But he earned a berth in the finals not by victory, but by consistency. His steady, if unspectacular, performances in the Chase – and minimal involvement in accidents and mechanical maladies – not only kept him alive in each round of the Chase, but also moved him forward.
In the first three races of the Chase, known as the Challenger Round, Newman scored just one top-10 finish. Yet, overall, he was good enough to be in 9th place in points – comfortably among the 12 drivers that advanced.
In the next three races that composed the Contender Round, Newman fared much better. He didn’t have a finish below 7th and was solidly in third place among the eight drivers who moved ahead.
Then came the next three races known as the Eliminator Round. Newman started well with a third-place run at Martinsville but stumbled a bit when he finished 15th at Texas.
When that race was over Newman remained in third place but was only 10 points ahead of Jeff Gordon – which figured prominently in the round’s final race at Phoenix.
The final four was set thusly:
Kevin Harvick won the race and that granted him an automatic berth in the final.
Contenders Denny Hamlin and Joey Logano saved themselves with some gritty, determined racing. Both made up lost laps to finish fifth and sixth, respectively, and make it to Homestead.
Gordon was primed to be the fourth entry. He was running second to Harvick on the last lap. Newman was 12th and needed to pick up a single point, somehow, if he was going to make the final.
There is an unwritten rule in NASCAR that says when drivers are on the last lap and racing for a victory, rules don’t apply – well, at least for the most part.
What that means is one driver can nudge, shove, plow or root another out of the way to win a race. Wrecking him is a different story which creates immediate controversy – but it’s happened.
Newman had to do what he could. And what he did was to slide up into the side of Kyle Larson’s Chevrolet and send him high up the track, but not into the wall.
Newman finished 11th, good enough to remove Gordon from the Chase.
Newman, who drives for Richard Childress Racing, knew exactly what he was doing against Larson. He knew there was no other way.
“In the end we fought back hard, did what we had to as clean as I possibly could,” Newman said. “I wasn’t proud of it, but I will do what I got to do to make it to this next round.
“Kyle Larson has got a lot of things coming in this sport. He used me up like that at Eldora in a truck a couple of years ago. From my standpoint I call it even, but I think if he was in my position he would have probably done the same thing.”
“It’s a little upsetting he pushed me up to the wall, but I completely understand the situation he was in, and can’t fault him for being aggressive there,” Larson said. “I think a lot of drivers out here would have done something similar if they were in that position.”
Newman has been criticized for his last-lap tactics but he stands by his strategy.
“I did what I had to do as clean as I could do it,” he said. “I’m not the kind of guy to turn somebody, so I just drifted as much as I could to get in there.
“My Chevy stuck on the apron and we made it.” Gordon, obviously, was not happy that he lost his last shot for at fifth career championship. But he did not blame Newman.“I don’t know if I’d say Newman wrecked him,” Gordon said. “He certainly ran him up the race track. That’s been OK everywhere we race.
“That’s the system that we have. Wait until next week when the championship is on the line. You’re going to see a lot more than that.
“That’s what NASCAR wants – to create intensity and interest and that’s what’s going to happen. You have to expect it.”
As said, some are not pleased that a winless Newman has a shot at a championship. Given that in its history no driver has ever won a title without winning a race, NASCAR is probably a bit concerned.
But what Newman has proven is that consistency is paramount in NASCAR. For years its point system was based exactly on that. It rewarded a driver who finished well week after week.
A competitor who regularly won a race and then tumbled to 40th in the next one never had a chance at the title.
Yes, the foundation of this Chase is victory.
But make no mistake – consistency is key. It was in the past and it remains so today.