Every playoff has an underdog of some kind and NASCAR's Chase for the Sprint Cup is no different. Cast in that role this postseason is Ryan Newman, he of zero wins and just four top-five finishes on the year, who improbably made it through three Chase rounds and is one of four drivers with a shot at the championship.
Despite an increased emphasis on winning and increased perks for doing so, Newman has used a tried-and-true NASCAR staple to advance to next week's championship race at Homestead-Miami Speedway: consistency.
Because of an inability to win, lead laps (just 41 laps through 35 races) or finish near the front (his best result is a pair of thirds), Newman seemed likely to exit the Chase early and with little impact.
Somewhat remarkably, his steady consistency, which saw him place 15th or better in all but one playoff race, became an asset as myriad Chasers were besieged by crashes, parts failures and underperformances.
That put Newman in the enviable position of not having to win Sunday at Phoenix International Raceway to go forward, whereas more successful drivers such as Kevin Harvick and Brad Keselowski were in must-win situations. Harvick did just that, rolling to a dominate victory he equated to a walkoff homerun.
Meanwhile Keselowski finished fourth and was bounced from the Chase along with Jeff Gordon, Matt Kenseth and Carl Edwards.
"That's just the system that we have," Gordon said. "You've got to race a system the way that it's structured and I'm so proud that I can hold my head up and say that I drove my heart out.
Said Keselowski: "It doesn't feel good to have won the most races and not being in it at Homestead, but it still feels like it has been a great season, winning six races."
NASCAR Phoenix Roundup
NASCAR Phoenix Roundup
Not everyone loves an underdog, apparently. Upset by the fact Keselowski and Gordon are now playoff spectators despite a combined 10 victories and more pronounced success than the winless Newman, the Richard Childress Racing driver is being decried by many fans as unworthy of being in the championship finale.
Looking solely at the taglines NASCAR utilized to hype its new Chase format and the increased rewards for winning, yes, Newman's inclusion among the final four does seem incongruous. But while winning may have been the main draw of the new Chase, it was never the sole option a driver had of making it to Homestead with a shot at the championship.
"I said from the beginning, if I was these guys that had wins after that first bracket and their wins didn't mean anything anymore, I wouldn't be happy," Newman said. "But I wasn't one of those guys. Mathematically, it played in my favor all the way through. That doesn't mean I'm going to be a champion, it's just means the system was made like that. Can it be manipulated? Absolutely. Can we give more points for wins? Can we give more points for leading laps? Absolutely. Can we give points for qualifying? I said that 10 years ago.
"In the end it is what it is. We all had an opportunity in Daytona to start our Chase for the championship, and now four of us have a chance this coming weekend."
With four slots available and a max of three different winners per round, there was always going to be someone who transferred via their points ranking. And when non-Chasers Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jimmie Johnson won the opening two races of Round 3, it opened a pair of additional spots to be determined by points.
Newman neither created the formula nor is he taking advantage of a loophole in the system, he is simply seizing the opportunity NASCAR crafted when it restructured its Chase at the beginning of the year. And over a three-race mini-season it was Newman, not Keselowski or Gordon, who performed best.
"I don't think anybody deserves to be Homestead more than this No. 24 team because of the effort that they put in and the performances that we've had," Gordon said. "But, you know what? You've got to score the points or win the races to get in there and we didn't do that."
If anything, Newman is an opportunist. No different than Harvick, who without a victory Sunday wouldn't have advanced, or Denny Hamlin or Joey Logano each of whom gained championship eligibility not by winning but by points.
"It doesn't matter to me," said Newman of potentially being a winless champion. "I mean, in the end it really doesn't matter. ... We're in this hunt."