Ryan Newman currently finds himself in second place in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship with just three races to go before the 2014 title is decided. He's still very much in the running, despite the fact that he's been consistently overlooked all year ong by his rivals and the pundits.
What's most surprising is that he's got this far and flown so high despite not winning a race all season. Indeed, he could go all the way to the championship without ever once visiting victory lane, while six-time race winner Brad Keselowski might not even make it to the final round.
"The math is officially there now," Newman agreed. "With Dale Jr. winning at Martinsville, there are at least two people making it to the Championship 4 Round that will not have a win in this latest bracket.
"Technically you can finish 39th at Homestead and still win a championship," he pointed out. "The math is going in that direction more than ever."
However as long as he is without a win, Newman won't actually be guaranteed a spot in the winner-take-all finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway next month until after all the results are in from both Texas and Phoenix. It could yet all unravel for him if he suffers an early retirement at either of the next two races. But so far, the strategy is undeniably working.
Last week's race at Martinsville Speedway was a textbook example of Newman's successful approach to the Chase. Never far from the front except after serving a pit lane speeding penalty on lap 200, he was also never really in contention for the lead either. He took the final restart in eighth place but when the chequered flag came out he was suddenly in third place, having surged to his highest position of the whole afternoon.
"Martinsville Speedway was a hard-fought battle for us," he recalled. "I put our whole team behind with the pit road speeding penalty. We fought back. We had a really tight-handling car during the entire race. We kept freeing it up. It finally got better in the end when it mattered.
"We took two tyres and it was nice to see it go green because we had some guys behind us that had four fresh tyres. They were going to pass us eventually, but we just had the right number of laps left to finish third. It was a good day for the #31 Chevrolet.
It amply demonstrated the steady-but-sure route that certainly seems to be working for the #31 Richard Childress Racing team, and Newman was taking great satisfaction in what the team has achieved up to this point in the Chase.
"It is nice to have back-to-back top fives," said Newman. "It is a first for me here at Richard Childress Racing. I just look forward to going to the next three races."
"We have been one of the most consistent teams out there when it comes to the Chase," he added. "For the longest time we were a seventh to 11th-place car. Over the second half of the season, we have made improvements that have allowed us to be championship contenders.
"There is no defining goal on consistency," he noted. "Our job is to go out there and do the best job we possibly can based on how we work together as a team. We have to outperform all those guys and, so far, it has provided us with consistency."
But while consistency is nice and has certainly been the key to his unexpected success in the 2014 play-offs, nothing beats a trip to victory lane. Newman's last win in the Cup Series was at the Brickyard in 2013, and before that at Martinsville in the spring of 2012.
Newman has also had victories at both of the next two Chase races - he won at Texas Motor Speedway in 2003 and at Phoenix International Raceway in 2010. If he were to pick up either win this year then it would automatically put him through to the final four competing for the title at Homestead; it would also silence the critics carping about his success n the Chase despite the lack of a race win. Most importantly of all, however, it's just something Newman really wants to achieve before the year is out - for himself, and for the team.
"This team still wants to win. We are here to win each and every race," he insisted. "We definitely need to win as a team. That's what we need to do to improve. That's our goal. We just have to keep our nose to the grind stone and keep digging and digging. We need a win.
Newman will be driving a brand new chassis for this weekend's AAA Texas 500 at Texas. It remains to be seen whether build number 491 will prove to be a lucky number for the driver, one that could allow him to break his year-long wins drought at the absolute best possible time.
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