Even among those fans and pundits who have given the new-look Chase format a thumbs-up so far, Ryan Newman's continued success in this year's NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship play-offs has been the annoying sharp stone in the shoe taking the edge off the entire experience.
It's certainly not Newman's fault: on the contrary he's done a remarkable job in his first season with Richard Childress Racing after moving from Stewart-Haas Racing last winter. He's got all the way to the winner-take-all finale this weekend at Homestead-Miami Speedway thanks to a great run of consistency all year that has notched up four top fives, 15 top tens and an overall average finish of 13.0 to date - better than both Kevin Harvick and Denny Hamlin.
But the problem for many people is what's missing from that statistic: any mention of wins or even pole positions. His best finish all year has been third place (at Kentucky in the summer, and Martinsville three weeks ago), and his best grid position was a solitary front-row start riding shotgun to pole winner Kyle Busch at Chicagoland at the start of the Chase. In total he's led just 41 laps over the course of seven races in 2014, compared with the 2,083 laps led by Harvick in 26 different races over the course of the season.
On almost every statistical level you can look at, Newman is a long way short of Harvick, Hamlin and Joey Logano, the other three drivers still in contention for this year's Sprint Cup title. Being winless alone makes him the target of criticism from those who find it bizarre that Brad Keselowski (with six wins this season) and Hendrick Motorsport team mates Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jimmie Johnson (all with four) should be sitting on the sidelines, excluded from the title battle being staged at the final race of the season on Sunday, the Ford EcoBoost 400.
But precisely none of that matters to Newman himself, who fought his way into the final four line-up courtesy of a very physical last lap overtaking move on non-Chase contender Kyle Larson last week at Phoenix International Raceway. All he cares is that it's the season finale and he's still in there with a chance of clinching the title: in fact with everyone's points levelled out again ahead of this weekend's decider, he genuinely has as good a chance as anyone of claiming the championship.
"I am so proud of my guys and all the effort they have put into this," he said. "We've been fighting very hard all year long. We did what we had to do to get to this position. We flew under the radar and turned in the solid performances to earn one of the four positions.
"There's been so much on the line week in and week out during this new Chase format," he added. "We've been able to dig in and move on. It's no different with the Homestead-Miami Speedway race. We are going to keep digging and hope it will be good enough to win a Sprint Cup Series championship."
That will be a big challenge facing him this weekend. He's never won at the 1.5-mile intermediate track before, his best result until now being third place in 2012 together with three more top ten finishes over the course of 12 races; and his average finishing position at Homestead is just 17.0, by some way the worst of the four drivers still on contention for the title.
Of course, Newman doesn't actually have to win this weekend: as long as he finishes in front of the other three at Homestead then that will be good enough to clinch the title. However that's only happened six times so far this season, while Harvick has been the best-placed of the foursome on 11 occasions, Logano in 10 races and Hamlin at the end of eight outings.
If Newman were to win the championship this weekend without also claiming the race win, then it would be the first time that a driver has ever managed to clinch the Cup title without winning a single race all season. Even if he were to break his duck and win this weekend at Homestead, it would put him in a pretty select group: only five times in the past has a driver been crowned Cup champion with just a single race win during the year.
A Newman championship would certainly garner headlines - it would be the first time in 20 years that Richard Childress Racing had managed to secured a championship, the team having previously been a powerhouse of the 80s and 90s when they won six titles with Dale Earnhardt Sr. But the idea of a driver winning the title without also winning a race would be an embarrassment for NASCAR, which designed the new elimination format Chase play-offs to put a special emphasis on motivating drivers to go for victory week-in and week-out. For it to publicly backfire so early, in its first year of operation, could very well mean NASCAR going back to the drawing board to see what needs changing for 2015.
But while the alarm bells are ringing in the distance,there is every chance that the format that has kept Newman so well-fed up to now may yet turn on him and bite his hand at the last moment. While consistency and reliability has propelled him to remarkable success so far, it will not win the title this weekend unless all three of his opponents have seriously bad days on Sunday. Finishing around tenth place might have helped him get through the three elimination stages of the 2014 Chase but it's unlikely to be good enough to clinch the championship.
"Mathematically, it played in my favour all the way through," said Newman. "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."
Moreover, Newman's famed reliability and consistency has started to unravel in the last couple of races: after a run of five top-ten finishes in the Chase he ended up slumping to 15th at Texas, and then had to fight a pitched battle with Larson at Phoenix to finish in 11th and get the single extra point he needed to put him through to the season finale. He ended up cutting the dog-leg and making the turn (and the pass) only by broadsiding the #42 in the process.
"I just went down to the bottom no matter what," Newman said after the race. "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."
"It's a little upsetting he pushed me up to the wall," said Larson. "But I completely understand the situation he was in, and can't fault him for being aggressive there. I think a lot of drivers out here would have done something similar if they were in that position."
So we know that Newman has the fire and determination to do whatever it takes to win the Sprint Cup title this weekend. The question is whether the car has the speed to allow him to do so. Everything tells us that it does not, but then again the new Chase has proven time and again that the only surprising outcome this weekend would be for there to be no more surprises.
"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," summed up Newman. "Out of the four of us nobody has ever won a Cup championship going into this next round, so we'll have a new Sprint Cup Series champion next weekend.
"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."
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