Victory more satisfying for Newman after drought

The victories used to come often and seemingly so easy for Ryan

Newman. A long time ago.

So when Newman finally made back it to Victory Lane, a

surprising triumph in the desert to end a 77-race Sprint Cup

winless drought and get his first win driving for Tony Stewart, it

was that much more satisfying.

“It was tough last year, I’m not going to kid you, when I come

to a new organization and it’s the same organization for Tony

Stewart and he won all those races,” Newman said. “We knew what

we needed to do to make our team better. And I feel that we’ve done

that. We proved that.”

A late caution flag Saturday night was the only thing that kept

Kyle Busch from a weekend sweep at Phoenix International Raceway.

That also provided the opening for Newman, who beat Jeff Gordon in

a two-lap shootout to win for the first time since the 2008 Daytona

500, and only the second time in five seasons.

“This is the most emotional victory I’ve ever had in my entire

career just because it’s been so long,” Newman said during the

postrace celebration, where Stewart was one of the first people to

congratulate him.

With three laps left, Busch had a two-second lead over Sprint

Cup points leader Jimmie Johnson, who had won four of the previous

five races at the oddly shaped mile track. But Scott Riggs, in his

first Cup race this season, blew a front right tire and brought out

a caution to send everybody scrambling to the pits before another

green-white-checkered finish.

Johnson and Busch both took four tires and exited behind six

cars that changed only right-side tires. Gordon won the race off

pit road ahead of Newman and defending race champion Mark

Martin.

But when Gordon spun his tires on the restart, Newman shot ahead

on the inside lane and stayed in front. Gordon was among those who

congratulated Newman after the race.

“It’s been a long time since he’s won, and I know that meant a

lot to him and that team,” Gordon said. “He told me it was a

great restart. And he said, `Yeah, I finally got a good one.’

After beginning his Cup career with Roger Penske, a 7 1/2-season

span front-loaded with success, Newman got into the No. 39 car for

the new Stewart-Haas team last year. He had 15 top-10 finishes and

made the Chase for the upstart team, but didn’t win a race.

That finally changed Saturday night.

“The emotional part is when I first started in the series, it

just came easy,” Newman said. “I was with a great team, had a

great crew chief, great pit stops. All those things just kind of

came easy to me.”

Newman had two top-10 finishes and a pole when he drove seven

races for Penske in 2001.

Then in his first full season, Newman set a rookie record with

22 top-10 finishes, finished sixth in points and topped Johnson for

2002 rookie of the year honors. He led the series in wins (eight)

and poles (11) in 2003, then solidified his qualifying nickname of

“Rocketman” with the most poles in each of the next two

seasons.

But Newman won only twice in 2004 and once in 2005. Then he

waited three more years before his next – and last – victory for

Penske.

“As it got toward 2005, I got to struggling a little bit. I got

a win here or there, but it was not dominant like we were back in

2002 and 2003,” Newman said. “And to come to this new

organization and achieve the things that we did was great last

year. But, as I said all year long, I wanted to get that first

victory for our team and for No. 39.”

Newman moved up six spots to 16th in points after his second

consecutive top-five finish that continued an upward trend. After

starting the season with an accident at Daytona and engine problems

at California to finish 34th and 36th, he has improved each race

since – 18th, 17th, 16th, fourth and now first.

“It was a long time coming for me personally, 77 races,”

Newman said. “But to see Tony Stewart win so many races last year

and be so close but not get that victory, this is really awesome

for us and our team.”

Newman led only two laps before the final two. That was during a

caution only 21 laps into what became a 378-lap race – instead of

the scheduled 375, already 63 more than last spring.

Johnson finished third and increased his series points lead –

from 14 to 36 over Matt Kenseth. Greg Biffle dropped from second to

third in points after finishing 22nd Saturday night, the first time

this season he wasn’t in the top 10.

“I was really happy to see where we came out,” Johnson said.

“I actually made the call for four tires. … I was excited to see

the caution. It gave me the opportunity to race for the win and

leave with the points stretched out a little bit.”

Denny Hamlin, racing only 10 days after surgery to repair the

torn ACL in his left knee, finished 30th, two laps off the pace. He

had moved up from his starting spot of 26th to 13th before an

extended stop 135 laps into the race to repair damage from being

hit and to address an electrical problem.

“We had a lot more issues than my leg today. We had a subpar

car and we just killed ourselves trying to change,” Hamlin said.

“Just fought all day and it was just a miserable experience.”