July 17, 2011
The world can be a nasty and brutish place, but every once in awhile, everything breaks exactly your way. The skies shine bright, the fridge is stocked with your preferred beverage, the lights on your drive are green every time. And, if you happen to be the owner of a NASCAR team, your cars start 1-2 and finish 1-2.
It's been a rough year for Tony Stewart from a sanity-preserving perspective; he's had at least one win and maybe more snatched from his grasp by poor decisionmaking and strategy, and he's found himself in the news more for grumpy-old-man pronouncements and on-track frontier justice than for his racing acumen.
But this weekend was all Stewart-Haas Racing, as the two-car shop put Ryan Newman and Stewart on the front row, and then Newman, followed by Stewart, right into victory lane. It marked the first time since the 1989 Daytona 500 that two drivers from the same team had started in the first two positions and finished in the first two, with winner Darrell Waltrip edging out Hendrick teammate and pole-sitter Ken Schrader.
"This is just an awesome day for Stewart-Haas racing," Stewart said. "We just needed one day where something stupid didn't go wrong."
Nothing did. Newman rolled right from the start, leading 119 of 301 laps. Only Kurt Busch (66 laps led) and Stewart (48 laps) posed any consistent challenge to Newman. Indeed, as the race wore on, it became clear that Newman's only real challenge came from his own gas tank. Would he have enough fuel to cross the line ahead of Stewart? A three-second lead shrunk to a half-dozen car lengths as the laps wound down, but as it turned out, Newman had enough gas for a win and half a burnout.
The significance of this win to Newman's Chase chances can't be overstated. He was ranked 10th last week, just two points ahead of Stewart. But he's now sitting in 8th place with an all-important win in his pocket. He's 62 points ahead of David Ragan, who'll be the benchmark for one-win drivers looking to stay in the Chase if they can't stay in the top 10. Stewart, for his part, is tied with Denny Hamlin for 10th place, and while Hamlin would get the nod into the Chase on wins, Stewart is still good because only Ragan has a win in the 11-20 segment.
"It puts us in a lot better position, that's for sure, just in general points-wise," Newman said. "We knew we were capable of it, we've been so close so many times this year, we just hadn't been to Victory Lane."
Stewart had his eye on the larger picture. "It's no secret we've been struggling this year," he said. "But it really shows me the depth of the people we got in our organization. It's been one of the weirdest years as far as just weird things and bad luck happening to both of us. Our guys at our shop just keep plugging away, they keep working, they keep their chins up. That's probably what I'm most proud of. It's easy when things are going right. But when times are tough and you have a day like today, you see how your organization battles."
This race wasn't one of the prettier ones on the schedule; passing was at a premium, and some of the sport's premier drivers, like Kyle Busch and Jimmie Johnson, found themselves spun. Still, it marked the 13th winner in 19 races; last year only had 13 winners all season.
And it was yet another dominant wire-to-wire performance by a different driver. Johnson may well win his sixth Cup this year, but the way that any of 10 drivers can bust out of the pack like this, No. 6 is by no means a certainty.
But all that's a story for another day. For now, the story heading into the off-weekend is this: where the heck will Ryan Newman find a pot big enough for that lobster?
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