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NASCAR Phoenix recap: The anatomy of Ryan Newman’s upset win

Using a combination of pit strategy and veteran savviness, Ryan Newman snapped a 127-race winless streak on Sunday at Phoenix.

Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Camping World 500 Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images

NASCAR’s version of March Madness didn’t involve a buzzer-beater and a small school few recognized toppling one of college basketball’s blueblood programs. Nevertheless what transpired Sunday at Phoenix International Raceway certainly qualifies as an upset, a reminder of what can transpire when circumstances converge resulting in an unforeseen outcome.

If prior to the Camping World 500 you were to draw up a list of potential winners, Ryan Newman’s name certainly would not have been among the first dozen or so chosen. That’s what happens when you haven’t won in 127 races, while your team, Richard Childress Racing, has gone winless in the past 112 races with neither showing much indication of snapping their streaks of futility.

For much of Sunday, the fourth Monster Energy Cup Series race of the season played out as expected. Pole-sitter Joey Logano dominated early in winning the first stage, with promising second-year driver Chase Elliott asserting himself in the second stage. Then, Kyle Busch seized control in the decisive final stage.

At no point before the final two laps did it appear Newman’s name would be etched on the winner’s trophy.

But the race that had seemingly been so clear-cut took an entirely different focus when Logano’s overheated right-front tire exploded, sending him crashing into the outside Turn 1 wall with four laps remaining. This placed the crew chiefs for Busch and others running up front in a difficult position where they had to choose between pitting for fresh tires and foregoing track position, or staying out on older tires.

Newman, who was seventh, thought it best to pit and take two tires. Crew chief Luke Lambert thought otherwise. He wanted to go for the win, figuring that with so few laps left their best chance stood if they stayed out, thereby placing Newman in a position where he would need to play defense.

“It was the only opportunity we had to win the race,” Lambert said. “I felt like doing it was going to yield a better result than the other option. Ultimately that was the decision. He said he could make the car wide. He did.”

It was now Newman’s race to win or lose. The key would be the restart. If he could get away cleanly and not have those behind on fresh tires get a run entering Turn 1, he stood a chance.

Newman’s mind flashed back to late restart in last fall’s playoff race at Phoenix, when leader Matt Kenseth found himself in a similar position. On that day, Alex Bowman had been able to get to the inside of Kenseth, who came down and clipped Bowman sending him spinning. Logano would go on to win, while Kenseth not only lost the race but was also eliminated from the playoffs.

“You're on old tires, it's easy to screw up,” Newman said. “You got to get your tires cleaned off right. You got to get a good launch. You got to run through the gearbox right. Then you got to hold everybody off.”

The stakes weren’t as high Sunday as they were in November when a berth in the championship finale was on the line, but for a driver and team in the midst of a three-year-plus dry spell, what was before them carried considerable importance.

Kyle Larson had been second before the caution and after pitting he would be fourth, the highest-placed among drivers on fresh tires, and in the preferred outside groove. He would likely be Newman’s biggest threat — provided he didn’t get bogged down in traffic.

That didn’t occur.

When the green flag waved Newman did his part and edged ahead, but as anticipated Larson got a terrific restart and was closing. However, instead of exercising patience, Larson attempted to swing low and to the inside of Newman. Unbeknownst to Larson, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. was there and Larson cut across his nose just as Kenseth had done to Bowman last fall.

“Hindsight is always 20/20, but I should have went a lane up in (Turns) 1 and 2,” Larson said. “I should have known to just stay close to Newman. That's what I wish I would have done.”

To his credit, Larson didn’t crash. The bobble, though, allowed Newman to build enough of a gap that there wasn’t enough time to chase him down and make a pass.

For the first time since July 28, 2013, Newman was on his way to victory lane. And for the first time since Nov. 3, 2013, a RCR driver had picked up a Cup Series checkered flag.

“Going a long time without winning, you have confidence in your mind that you can do it,” Newman said. “… You just got to stay humble. This sport, you walk away from it, there's one guy that wins, 39 losers. You have to be humble walking into it that you're probably not going to win that day. Odds are against you.”

On the surface it may appear as if Newman stole a race he had no business winning. That couldn’t be farther from the truth.

It took a combination of sage strategy by Lambert and Newman’s veteran savviness to make it happen. The other six teams ahead of Newman could’ve employed the same strategy as Lambert and not pitted under the final caution. Yet, it was Lambert who made the correct call. And on worn tires, it would’ve really been easy for Newman to stumble on the restart.

Sunday may have been an upset, but don’t think for a second that it wasn’t earned.