From lame-duck driver to Brickyard champion, to the man carrying all of Stewart-Haas Racing's playoff hopes on his shoulders. It's been an interesting past few weeks for Ryan Newman, to say the least.
On July 12 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, it was announced that Newman would be the odd driver out in a restructuring that would bring Kevin Harvick to SHR beginning in 2014. Two weeks later at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the free agent bolstered his case for a ride for next season by winning one of the biggest races in NASCAR. Now, he's the lone driver at Stewart-Haas with a chance of making the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup -- even though he won't be working there after this year.
Such is the byproduct of Tony Stewart's crash Monday night in a sprint car race in Iowa, which left the three-time champion of NASCAR's premier series out indefinitely with two broken bones in his lower right leg. Stewart had surgery to repair a fractured tibia and fibula, and will miss at least Sunday's event at Watkins Glen International.
Sitting out that one event will likely be enough to derail Stewart's playoff hopes in a tightly-bunched Chase race where just 27 points separate ninth through 15th place in the standings. Stewart maintained his hold on the first Wild Card position following Sunday's ninth-place run at Pocono Raceway, with his 11th-place points standing and victory earlier this season at Dover combining to place him atop the list of hopefuls vying for the two at-large berths.
That is, until Sunday, when Stewart's absence from the Watkins Glen starting field promises to alter the picture substantially. Remove Stewart from the equation, and Michael Waltrip Racing driver Martin Truex Jr. becomes the top Wild Card candidate. And right there behind him is Newman, who vaulted into playoff contention two weeks ago by virtue of his Brickyard triumph, and built on that momentum by finishing fourth at Pocono.
Newman is now 14th in the standings, 24 points behind Jeff Gordon in 10th. Although Brad Keselowski and Kurt Busch both rank higher, they don't have a victory. Kasey Kahne's victory Sunday at Pocono helped Newman's cause, given that Gordon, Busch and Keselowski were all in contention at some point, and were all left still looking for that first race win.
"It's a good run, (but) not as good as it could have been," Newman said after the race. "We struggled in the pits today, but overall a good effort. We're racing a lot of the guys around us, where it's important to get the victory. Jeff was really close there and he's fighting for his Wild Card spot. We have a win and we are fighting for a top-10 Wild Card spot, but nonetheless it was a good effort. Just a horrible day in the pits for us. We have to get that figured out."
Overall, Pocono was another promising race for a Stewart-Haas team that has shaken off its poor start, and gained a great deal of traction when Newman and Stewart finished first and fourth, respectively, at Indianapolis. Add in the spectacularly successful Camping World Truck Series race at Eldora Speedway, a dirt track Stewart owns, and it had been a charmed stretch for the three-time champion -- until Monday night.
"We've been running good. It's just we still need to be a little bit better," Stewart, who overcome a pit road speeding penalty Sunday, said at Pocono. "There are cars that are still a little bit better than us right now that we're trying to get caught up to. So I think our focus is more on that than making the Chase. It's one thing to make the Chase, but it's another thing that once you get there, you've got to have something you can contend with. So, we're staying focused on just taking it one week at a time and working on our program."
Even Danica Patrick showed signs of progress at Pocono -- until a her car suddenly broke loose and slid into Travis Kvapil, collecting Jeff Burton and Paul Menard in the process. Patrick was running 18th at the time of the crash, and seeking her fourth top-20 finish of the season.
"There was a car outside of me, and when there is a car outside of you going through fast corners, it takes the side force off of it and the car gets looser when someone is there. It hadn't been a problem all day. I didn't do anything different that time. I even kind of told myself going into the corner, 'It's fine, just run through the corner.' I don't know if (Kvapil) was closer than other cars had been to my outside or not," said Patrick, who finished 35th.
"It would have been nice to finish in the top 20," she added. "That is just my goal. It's simple, it's nothing crazy, but it's been a challenge this year. It would have been nice to do that, and we were just having a steady race and a good race and it's over. We were way better than we were last time. We were competitive and we were making good calls in the pits. Everything was going -- it just happens."
Even so, that crash did little to dim the afterglow of Indianapolis and Eldora, which seemed to buoy the SHR team in recent weeks. Stewart had walked away from a pair of previous spills in sprint cars, one a 15-vehicle pileup and another where his machine flipped five times. Monday night in Iowa, his luck finally ran out when he barreled into a lapped car that had spun while Stewart was leading the race.
Barring a miraculous recovery, the broken leg will almost certainly keep Stewart out of the title picture this year. Now it's up to Newman to carry the banner for a Stewart-Haas program that's made great improvements over the past few months -- even if it's not retaining him beyond this season.
"Everybody is working hard," Stewart said at Pocono. "All of our partners are excited, especially after Ryan's win at the Brickyard last weekend. We're proud of him for that, and we've just got to keep plugging away."
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