Avondale, Ariz. — A big gamble in the desert heat ended a long victory drought for Ryan Newman.
When just about everybody else decided to take a tire-changing pit stop in the final few laps on Sunday, Newman figured he’d be going in with them.
His crew chief Luke Lambert thought otherwise.
It was a decision that earned Newman a victory in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race, ending his 127-race winless streak.
“Just a heck of a gutsy call by Luke Lambert,” Newman said. “It’s his first win as a crew chief in the cup series and I think making a gutsy call like that makes it that much more special for him.”
While the leaders were in the pits, Newman moved from seventh to first and for the final two laps held off Kyle Larson, the second-place finisher for the third straight race.
Kyle Busch, the leader for nearly all of the final stage of the race, was third on a day when the temperature soared to 97 degrees at Phoenix International Raceway.
Like nearly all the rest of the field, Larson and Busch went to the pits on the late caution caused when Joey Logano’s car blew a right tire and slammed into the wall six laps from the finish.
Newman won his 18th Cup race but his first since the 2013 Brickyard 400. He gave Chevrolet its first victory of the season and ended a 112-race losing streak for Richard Childress Racing.
“I can’t say enough about what it means,” Newman said.
When the caution ended, two laps separated him from the win.
“You’re on old tires. It’s really easy to screw it up,” Newman said. “You’ve got to get your tires cleaned off right, you’ve to get a good launch, you’ve got to run through the gear box right, and then you’ve got to hold everybody off.”
Larson, with two new tires on his Chevrolet, came out of the late pit stop with two new tires ahead of Busch’s Toyota and had the best chance to catch Newman.
“I thought he was going to be all over me,” Newman said. “I don’t think he could get going as good as he wanted to.”
Larson blamed his failure to quite get that victory three races in a row on “little mistakes or inexperience or whatever you want to call it.”
Once again, Logano’s misfortune foiled Busch, who was leading up until that tire blew.
Last week Logano’s car knocked Busch’s into the wall on the final stretch in Las Vegas. That led Busch to storm down pit row and throw a punch at Logano, creating a scuffle with the crews and a meeting for the drivers with NASCAR officials on Friday.
Busch took the lead Sunday with a quick pit stop during a caution flag and led for 113 laps before heading to the pits after Logano’s crash.
The series of runner-up finishes gave Larson the Cup points lead, the first time Chip Ganassi Racing has led the points race this late in the season since 2002.
Logano won the first stage and Chase Elliott the second in NASCAR’s new three-stage system.
Elliott dominated the second stage but lost the lead after Matt Kenseth, like Logano, blew a right front tire and slammed into the wall on the 193rd lap of the 314-lap race. In the ensuing pit stop, Busch got out quicker than Elliott to take the lead.
Blown tires were a common sight on the hot pavement but Newman was able to negotiate the treacherous surface when it mattered most.
“There’s guys that go their whole career and never win, and good drivers,” he said. “You’ve just got to stay humble. This sport … there’s one guy that wins, 39 losers. You’ve got to be humble walking into that that you’re probably not going to win that day.”
He felt that way until those last couple of laps on Sunday.
At Gainesville, Florida, driving great John Force won the Gatornationals for the first time since 2001, doing so on the 10th anniversary of his worst day in racing.
He beat rookie Jonnie Lindberg in the Funny Car final Sunday for his NHRA-leading eighth victory in 35 tries at the event.
His 148th career victory came a decade to the day after one of his drivers, Eric Medlen, crashed during practice at Gainesville Raceway. Medlen died four days later. Force helped Medlen’s father, John, spearhead efforts to make professional drag racing safer.
In the Top Fuel class, Tony Schumacher edged Don Schumacher Racing teammate Antron Brown for his 83rd career win. Shane Gray stunned four-time national champion Greg Anderson in Pro Stock, and Eddie Krawiec won Pro Stock Motorcycle for the second straight year and fifth time since 2010.