VICTORY LAP: Newman Plays Strategy Perfect, Snaps Winless Drought at Phoenix

Coming into this weekend at Phoenix, you’d have to go all the way back to July 28, 2013 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway to find Ryan Newman’s last win in NASCAR’s top series. I’ll save you some time and do the math: that’s 127 races and nearly four full years without a win.

You’d have to go all the way back to November of that very same year, when Kevin Harvick was still with Richard Childress Racing, for RCR’s last win at NASCAR’s premier level. Richard Childress is a Hall of Fame owner, but for the past four years, he had not won a race.

That all changed Sunday at Phoenix International Raceway. Newman, Childress and the No. 31 team won the Camping World 500 after a late strategy call from crew chief Luke Lambert. The call was to leave Newman out on old tires for the overtime finish, and it paid off. He was able to hold off Kyle Larson on fresh tires and finally found victory lane once again.


HELLO, NEWMAN!

As previously mentioned, Newman’s winless streak spanned nearly four full years and 127 races. The win was the 18th of his career, his second at PIR and the first for RCR since 2013 as well.

“I’ve lost count—that’s how long it’s been,” Newman told FOX post-race after claiming the checkered flag. “I’m just proud of these guys. We had a good car all day. We kept it out of trouble and collected in the end […] it’s sweet for so many reasons.”

Newman, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Martin Truex Jr. were the only three drivers who opted to stay out under the final caution of the afternoon, which was brought out by polesitter Joey Logano. On the ensuing restart, second-place finisher Kyle Larson tried to clear Stenhouse Jr. but failed. The two made contact, allowing the No. 31 to get out to a large enough lead to hold off the No. 42’s fresher tires and drive all the way into victory lane.

“This is the longest drought I’ve ever had,” Newman said. “A hard-fought battle, a hard-fought race, a hard-fought four years […] going a long time without winning, you have confidence in your mind that you can do it. There are guys that go their whole career and never win, good drivers. You just got to stay humble.”

Newman was “spent” and “had the chills on lap 50” due to the extreme temperatures. “I’m done,” he sighed. Moments later, Newman was cooled down with ice and cold water.

Photo: Getty Images

Following Newman and Larson to the checkered flag were Kyle Busch, Stenhouse Jr., Brad Keselowski, Kevin Harvick, Daniel Suarez, Erik Jones (first career top ten finish for both of those rookies), Jimmie Johnson and Denny Hamlin.

Truex Jr., Chase Elliott, Clint Bowyer, Dale Earnhardt Jr. finished just outside the top ten, with Ryan Blaney coming home 23rd after a speeding penalty late in the day ruined what otherwise would have been a top 10. Busch and Elliott also earned one playoff point each for winning a stage on Sunday.

Also, do yourself a favor and check Kenny Wallace’s tweet showcasing the top two finishers.


COOL HAND LUKE

Photo: Sean Gardner/Getty Images

Luke Lambert was the man who made the call to keep his driver out on the racetrack rather than pit.

“I called for two tires, he called for none,” Newman, who called Lambert’s decision “gutsy.” But like any winning crew chief, Lambert never wavered.

“There was no convincing,” Lambert said post-race. “I think me and Ryan have a good relationship. I felt in my gut it was a good decision. I had a lot of good information in front of me that I was able to draw to and make a snap decision. I thought it was the only opportunity we had to win the race.”

The win was Lambert’s first in the Cup series.


RCR BACK IN VICTORY LANE

It was bound to happen sometime soon, right? Four years is a really long time. But if you had RCR becoming the first Chevrolet team to win a race in 2017 and Newman beating out Austin Dillon to reach victory lane: congratulations. Because most people didn’t.

Photo: Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images

“It’s been a long, hard fight, and a battle all the way,” Childress admitted. “Nobody ever gave up. We never gave up on Ryan. We know that he can do it. Our cars just haven’t been quite where we needed to be.”

Dillon will earn his first MENCS victory sooner rather than later. And if he does, RCR might be back in the spotlight like they were in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s.


KYLE THE BRIDESMAID

Photo: Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images

Larson’s second-place finish was his third in the first four races this season and his fourth in the last five dating back to the 2016 finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

But when will Larson be able to get over the hump and close the deal? Hint: really soon.

“I knew we were in the best spot,” the driver of the No. 42 said. “Just turned across Ricky’s nose and got sideways, killed both of our runs off (turn) 2, and allowed Newman to get out on us. Hindsight is always 20/20, but I should have went a lane up in (turns) 1 and 2. I should have known to just stay close to Newman. That’s what I wish I would have done.”


EVERYTHING’S STILL GREAT … SORT OF

Busch’s remarks upon exiting the NASCAR hauler after his conversation with Joey Logano have made their rounds. Deservedly so, they have been compared to Marshawn Lynch’s “I’m just here so I don’t get fined” comments at Super Bowl media day a few years ago.

But is everything still great? If the final caution would not have come out, Busch would have been victorious. The No. 18 was one of, if not the fastest car all race long. Oh, and you don’t think the racing gods exist? Well, get ready to believe.

The final caution to derail Busch’s winning day was brought out by … you guessed it, Joey Logano. Funny how that always has a way of working itself in there, huh?


HAS HARVICK LOST HIS MASTERY?

Harvick’s sixth place finish was his first outside the top five at the 1-mile track since 2013. That’s absurd, and it shows his recent dominance at the track he’s called one of his favorites. But he failed to lead a lap, and the No. 4 never really was the “Cactus King” all weekend.

Now, let’s not go crazy here. One race with Harvick finishing just outside the top five after a strategy call jumbled up the field and won a sleeper the race is a bit of an anomaly. But starting 23rd and working their way through the field for the SHR team is a positive, and you can bet your bottom dollar that Harvick will be the favorite to win again at PIR come November.


PENSKE PROBLEMS

The record-tying temperatures in the upper-90’s on Sunday in the desert must have been a drag for fans in the grandstands. But it wasn’t 140 degrees in the seats. It was in the seat of Dale Earnhardt Jr., and that heat took its toll on the race cars as well.

Four of the six cautions (not counting stage cautions) were brought out due to tire failures. Matt Kenseth (finished 37th) and Joey Logano (finished 31st) were two notable drivers to have their days go sour thanks to melted beads on Goodyear tires.

Photo: Sean Gardner/Getty Images

Cole Whitt and Corey LaJoie were the other two to bring out the yellow flag due to tire failures. But that’s not where the problems for Team Penske come to an end.

After the race, it was announced that the No. 2 car of Keselowski failed post-race ride height inspection (weights and measures). The penalty for such an infraction, according to the NASCAR rulebook, results in a points penalty anywhere from 10 to 40 points, a one-to-three race suspension for the crew chief (Paul Wolfe, in this case) and a fine of $25,000-$75,000 to the CC as well.


WHAT’S NEXT

The final leg of NASCAR Goes West and a trip to Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif. is what’s next for both the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series as well as XFINITY Series.

Jimmie Johnson is the defending winner and leads all active drivers in wins at ACS with six.

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