For a drivers whose entire unexpected run of success in the 2014 Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship had been founded on his remarkable level of consistency from week-to-week, Ryan Newman came close to seeing his season fall to dust with a dismal start to the penultimate race of the season this weekend at Phoenix International Raceway.
"I'm whipped," Newman admitted afterwards after climbing out of his race car and taking a few moments to sit on the pit wall to catch his breath and gather his emotions. "I haven't been this tired after 312 laps around this place in a long time."
Already in trouble after a poor qualifying on Friday left him starting the race in 20th place, Newman promptly went into reverse at the green flag and started losing even more spots, dropping to 25th before the first caution of the day and complaining of loose handling on the #31 Richard Childress Racing Chevy. It was very far away from where Newman needed to be if he was to have the points to put him into the winner-take-all season finale next week at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
Over the course of the race he managed to claw his way back toward the top ten, and a decision not to pit under one of the numerous cautions toward the end of the race gave him track position - although it was tough to maintain against those who on fresher tyres.
"We were on some of the oldest tyres I think there towards the end," he said. "You never really know how good their cars are and you never know when the strategy is going to turn on you. It did exactly that ... They were better on restarts than we were and we got shuffled back and next thing you know we're the odd guy out."
In the end, being overtaken by Kyle Larson in the #42 Chip Ganassi Racing car meant that Newman dropped out of one of the three available transfer spots that were up for grabs based on the points standings. Without getting back around Larson, Newman's title run was over.
Newman knew what he had to do, and after the cars took the white flag he tried to dive past arson on the dog-leg, only to skate up the track and broadside the #42. Larson headed to the wall while Newman put his foot down and crossed the line in 11th place - enough to edge Jeff Gordon by one point in the final standings, meaning that Newman stays in the Chase and Gordon is knocked out.
"I tried to get the best run I could off of turn 2, and I had one of the best runs I had of the race off of turn 2 at that point," said Newman of the contact with Larson. "Kyle was right on the #9's rear bumper and when he went into turn 3, I think he slipped just a little bit, and I just went down to the bottom no matter what. I figured if I'm going to try this I'm going to try it and see if it works, and it worked. I don't know how much of it was racing luck, but the old adage of eight tyres are better than four was definitely true today.
"I think if Kyle Larson was in my shoes, he'd have done the exact same thing. I didn't take him out. He still finished the race," added Newman. "I think in a day or two he'll understand, if he doesn't now."
Larson avoided talking to the media immediately after the race, but on Monday signalled his agreement with Newman's assessment. "Its 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," said the rookie driver. "I think a lot of drivers out here would have done something similar if they were in that position."
Newman continued, "It's hard to rationalise that, but like I said, I did what I had to do and tried to keep it as clean as I possibly could. I don't like racing that way, but there's a lot on the line here, and we'll keep digging."
"Everybody raced hard," he pointed out. "I didn't see anybody giving anybody anything. That's what we're supposed to do. There's guys that could have backed off and not stuck it in there three-wide on a restart or whatever, but everybody raced hard and everybody raced clean.
"We got beat around a little bit here and there, and we did our own beating around a little bit, but that's part of racing at Phoenix. That's part of the crazy restarts. That's part of the intensity of this Chase. It's racing, man. That's what we're kind of supposed to do."
Making that pass on Larson means that Newman is still in the running for the title. If he were to clinch it then he would be the first driver to be crowned champion without winning a race all season - unless he were to win at Homestead, of course.
"It doesn't matter to me," insisted Newman. "I mean, in the end it really doesn't matter. I think Denny kind of said that you could have a fast car, you could have a consistent car, you could have a good long-run car, and you've got pretty good chances of having a good day at Homestead. The fastest car may not win, the best car on a restart may not win. You just never know.
"It could come right down to fuel mileage and three of the four of us could be coasting on the last lap," he mused. "You just never know. We're in this hunt. I'm proud of all my guys, and today was a lot of hard work, and in the end, the last lap was fun. But everything before that was pretty stressful.
Certainly it seems that the new format for the Chase play-offs this season has worked to Newman's advantage - or maybe RCR have simply been better at getting to grips with what it takes to win under the new system.
"From my standpoint, the intensity of the sport has gone through the roof. You can never make everybody happy," he said. "Mathematically, it played in my favour all the way through. That doesn't mean I'm going to be a champion, it's just means the system was made like that. Can it be manipulated? Absolutely. Can we give more points for wins? Can we give more points for leading laps? Absolutely. Can we give points for qualifying? I said that 10 years ago.
"In the end it is what it is, and we all had an opportunity in Daytona to start our Chase for the championship, and now four of us have a chance this coming weekend," he added.
If he's successful next week, Newman - who only joined the team at the start of this year - could deliver RCR its first championship in 20 years since the days of Dale Earnhardt Sr., and Newman agreed that the thought of such a prospect would mean a lot, but that it would need to be pushed to the back of his mind for the next seven days.
"It would mean a lot to me, regardless of history," he said. "If you're going to follow in anybody's footsteps and have some history, that's the man. But I won't strap into the race car thinking of that next Sunday, I'll strap into the race car thinking about what we've got to do to get the Caterpillar Chevrolet into victory lane.
"Out of the four of us [left in the Chase], nobody has ever won a Cup championship going into this next round, so we'll have a new Sprint Cup Series champion next weekend," he pointed out. "That's a chance for a dream to come true for one of us and all of us. Just to have a shot at it is amazing.
"For me personally, just to have this opportunity, I know these guys can sit here and say the same thing, this is a chance for a dream to come true."
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