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If there's been one ongoing criticism of the new-look Chase format for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship play-offs, it's been how it's allowed Ryan Newman to make it to the final four competing for the title at the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway despite not having won a race all year, while other supposedly stronger drivers like Brad Keselowski and Jimmie Johnson had already fallen by the wayside.

On Sunday it appeared that Newman had been spurred on by all the criticism to produce his best performance of the year in the Ford EcoBoost 400 despite starting the race in 21st position after his worst qualifying since Pocono at the start of August. For a driver whose entire championship run had been founded on consistency, this had not augured well for him.

Nor were there any particularly encouraging signs in the first part of the race which saw him initially drop even further back before finally managing to slog his way forward. But following the second caution of the afternoon, Newman was suddenly in the top ten; and then into the top five on lap 75 after passing Jimmie Johnson. The #31 Richard Childress Racing Chevy had finally found its form, and it would stay ner the front for most of the rest of the race before finally ending up on the front row alongside Kevin Harvick for the final restart that would decide who would take home the 2014 championship trophy.

"He took the top lane for a reason," noted Newman of Harvick's choice of lane selection for the final green flag. "He saw more than I did. But in the end, I just got down underneath him and he was close enough to me, took some of the air away from me.

"I had a pretty good run and cut down to the bottom and just ran out of racetrack, ran out of room, and he had the air, he had the line," he said. "I could have kept it wide open and washed up into him, and it wasn't the right move. It wasn't what I would have wanted him to do to me.

"If we were close enough on the last lap, it might have been a different game, but I wasn't," he explained. "I slipped off of turn 4 coming to the white, and at that point it was pretty much over. I really was hoping he would slip a tyre, blow a motor, something like that, that was our only hope. All those things go through your mind."

A decision by crew chief Luke Lambert to go for a final two-tyre stop had been pivotal in gaining Newman track position at the crucial moment, even if it meant he didn't quite have the grip of Harvick who had dropped back after opting for four tyres, but who was able to quickly race back to the front with the greater grip. Meanwhile longtime leader Jeff Gordon attempted to stay out but then came in under a subsequent stop, which dropped the #24 all the way back to tenth place at the finish.

"Luke I thought made a great call on the two-tyre stop, and we got some track position," said Newman. "And then when Jeff pitted, that kind of caught me by surprise and gave us the front row.

"The game changer for us I think really was the one caution that was before Gordon pitted that I think Denny [Hamlin] was leading, and we were in a better situation than they were on tyres. We had [new right side tyres] and they had stayed out, which I think was the right call for them at the time had the race gone green, but it had a couple late race cautions."

Finishing second was vindication for Newman, who felt that it proved he had belonged in the Chase finale all along. If he had gone one better and clinched the title then he would have had to do so by winning the race from Harvick, which would have immediately short-circuited all those 'winless wonder' jibes that he's been forced to grit his teeth and smile through for the last two months.

"We came back for the entire season to make our best finish our last finish," he beamed. "It is disappointing, don't get me wrong, but there's no point in being a sore loser. It's some motivation, some momentum for the off-season to get started for Daytona, and just look forward to the opportunity for next year."

As it is, finishing second place at Homestead this week means he ends the year in second place in the 2014 Sprint Cup Series championship, his best result in 13 years of full time competition. Previously he finished in sixth place three times in his first four seasons with Penske, but since then his best result was ninth in 2009 in his first year with Stewart-Haas Racing.

He parted company with SHR at the end of 2013 - ironically to make way at the team for the man who beat him to the title on Sunday, Kevin Harvick - and this has been his first year with Richard Childress Racing - and he came within half a second of being the team's first Cup champion in 20 years since Dale Earnhardt Sr. last picked up the trophy.

"It says a lot about the organization. It says a lot about how quick we grew. Luke Lambert and all the guys did an awesome job," he said. "It's been a whole lot of fun. We weren't victorious so we didn't win many battles, and we sure came close to winning the war. It's still a lot of fun. I appreciate all the guys' hard work

"It's been an amazing year," he added. "They say you have to lose one before you can win one - I'm ready to win one now!"

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