Ryan Newman started from pole position for the Sprint Cup Series race at Loudon on Sunday night with his boss, Tony Stewart, lining up beside him – the first time they locked out the front row together – and 318 miles later they finished with their first one-two finish.
In what is rapidly becoming one of the tightest ever seasons in Cup racing Newman was the thirteenth different winner in the first nineteen races and made his place in The Chase a touch more secure.
It was yet another fuel mileage race – most of them are recently – and Newman was told to eke out his gas over the last few laps. Even though Stewart had pitted after his teammate – and employee – he didn’t have sufficient speed in his car to catch and then pass Newman.
Stewart was adamant after the race that he had been giving it his all as they raced to the checkered flag; he needs a win under his belt every bit as much as Newman if he is also to make The Chase, his second place leaving him eleventh in the points and vulnerable to being discarded from the title winning opportunity if another driver placed between eleventh and twentieth scores a win.
“I can promise you, I didn’t leave anything out there,” Stewart said. “That was as hard as I could run ’til the end. I couldn’t get the rest of the way. I couldn’t get any further than that. I got in a period when I caught Jeff Gordon – I think he was running fourth or fifth at the time – I got to his bumper, but I couldn’t really do anything. I ran about three laps where I kept slipping the rear of the car, just got the tires hot. I basically had to back away from him and run my pace again, just let everything cool down. Then we made that second charge at him and were able to get by him and keep marching forward. The problem was, to do what we did to get a second, I mean, I used everything up getting there. That was as far and as close to Ryan as I could get.”
Meanwhile Newman was glad to finally prove the naysayers wrong. “We backed up what everybody said we couldn’t back up, and that was our qualifying effort on Friday,” Newman said. “We put it on ’em today. We don’t put it on ’em every weekend, so we need to relish this moment and figure out what we did right so we can keep doing it.”
Third place finisher, Denny Hamlin, survived a spin triggered by a tap from A J Allmendinger just after half distance. After his final pit stop Hamlin realised it was likely that he would be needed to save fuel so started saving earlier than most other drivers. The conservative approach gave him the consumption he needed to be able to fight to the finish but he was frustrated that he didn’t dare try to attack the Stewart-Haas pair and risk losing the places he had gained.
Behind Hamlin was his teammate, Joey Logano, having only his third top five finish of the season. The third driver in the Joe Gibbs Racing team, Kyle Busch, was unlucky to have a right front tyre blow as he entered turn two on lap 59 sending his car in a trajectory straight to the wall. It took until lap 134 to effect the necessary repairs to his car and he was destined to finish in 36th place and dropping four places from the lead in the points table.
Fifth place at the finish was not enough to bring a smile to Jimmie Johnson‘s face as he bemoaned the performance of his team during qualifying and pit stops during the race. Just after the two-thirds point in the race Johnson was racing with Kurt Busch for the lead when a caution flag was shown. During the yellow flag pit stop a lug (wheel) nut was not replaced properly on his car and he was called back to the pits, dropping him to back to 35th and thus undoing all his efforts to climb from his 28th place starting position.
Johnson had climbed back up to sixth when, not for the first time, there was “accidental” contact with Juan Pablo Montoya dropping the no. 48 back to his starting position. He fell further back to the low thirties before starting yet another climb through the field to his top five finish.
Far from being happy to have achieved such a strong finish from so much adversity Johnson was in a very downbeat mood after the race. “Well, you look at the result and there’s nothing to complain about there. We made up a lot of points on guys that were ahead of us [Sunday],” said Johnson, who sits second in the point standings, seven behind new leader Carl Edwards. “But if you look at the journey and plotted a chart of where we started to where we finished, that thing’s all over the place — and we can’t have that. I’m in harm’s way week in and week out, trying to get to the front. And when it comes to the Chase, you need to dodge all those wild situations as often as possible. Qualifying poorly and having bad things happen that affect your track position are not the path to a championship.”
Undoubtedly the most positive man on Sunday night was Tony Stewart who said to his team as he crossed the finish line, “One hell of a day, boys — one hell of a day.”