Ryan Newman never led Sunday’s Sprint Cup Series race at Phoenix International Raceway.
In fact, he didn’t even finish in the top 10.
But with a berth in next weekend’s winner-take-all championship race at Homestead-Miami Speedway hanging in the balance, Newman executed a bold, last-lap pass on rookie Kyle Larson to grab the 11th position and in the process earn the opportunity to be one of four drivers who will compete for the title next Sunday in South Florida.
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Knowing he needed to pass one driver on the last lap to nip Jeff Gordon by one point for the final transfer spot in the Chase for the Sprint Cup, Newman nudged Larson up out of the groove to grab a coveted spot at the championship table with Phoenix winner Kevin Harvick, Joey Logano and Denny Hamlin.
Given the choice to race clean or go for broke, Newman opted not to leave anything on the table in Sunday’s final race of the Chase Eliminator Round.
"You’ve got to give it your all," the Richard Childress Racing driver said. "That one spot paid off today, but that one spot could have been three or four spots on a restart in Texas last week. It’s like we’re the sum of everything we put into this, and today we were just enough."
One of five Chase drivers who opted to remain on track and not pit under the race’s penultimate caution, Newman restarted fifth with 20 laps to go and quickly began losing positions as drivers on fresher rubber began moving forward.
Running 12th when the white flag waved, Newman appeared poised to be the first man to miss the cut for the Championship Round. And that’s when he decided to lay a bumper to Larson and let the chips fall as they may.
"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," Newman said. "Kyle was right on the 9’s (Marcos Ambrose) 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 tires are better than four was definitely true today."
While Newman certainly would have preferred not to rub Larson’s No. 42 Chevy, he also made no apologies about his move — and even suggested, half-jokingly, that the youngster had it coming from a run-in with Newman in last year’s Camping World Truck Series race at the Eldora Speedway dirt track.
"He used me up on multiple restarts and literally just used me up and used me as a wall and a cushion to drive around," Newman said, recalling Eldora. "We had fun doing it, don’t get me wrong, and today was really no retaliation for that, but to me in my mind it was the fact that he can’t be too mad after the way he raced me in a truck at Eldora."
Then someone in the room suggested there’s a big difference between roughing up a competitor in a truck race versus a Sprint Cup Series race.
"Well, I’m stretching it, but realistically, I overheard these guys saying, ‘Man, you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do,’ and that’s really what it’s all about," Newman said. "I wasn’t proud of what I had to do, but I did it the best way that I possibly could."
Now, it’s on to Homestead where Newman will attempt to deliver the first Sprint Cup title for Richard Childress Racing since Dale Earnhardt’s seventh and final championship 20 years ago.
"It would mean a lot to me, regardless of history," Newman said. "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. Just to have a shot at it is amazing.
"You know, with respect to RCR and Dale Earnhardt Sr., yeah, 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."
And if Newman — the only remaining title contender without a win — manages to capture the championship without a trip to Victory Lane, it won’t put a damper on the accomplishment, in his mind.
"It doesn’t matter to me," Newman said. "I mean, in the end, it really doesn’t matter. … You could have a fast car, you could have a consistent car, you could have a good longârun 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. 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."
VIDEO: Ryan Newman talks about making it into the Championship 4 at Homestead