Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Smoke Signals: Newman in right place, right time to win Martinsville in crazy finish


Credit: Jerry Markland/Getty Images for NASCAR  
Just six weeks into the 2012 season, Stewart-Haas Racing has won 50 percent of the Sprint Cup races. Ryan Newman was in the right place at the right time Sunday to capitalize upon a weird and wacky finish at Martinsville and win his first race of the season. Team owner Tony Stewart rallied to finish 7th.

Both drivers had come back after going a lap down earlier in the Goody’s Fast Relief 500, Newman after incurring a speeding penalty.

Newman’s victory is SHR’s third this year and eighth in the last 16 races, continuing the organization’s domination. While Stewart claimed two wins at Las Vegas and last week at Fontana, it was Newman’s time to shine at Martinsville.

However, it didn’t come easy for the driver of the No. 39 Outback Steakhouse Chevrolet. After the green flag waved Sunday, Newman started 5th and remained in the top 10. But after the race’s first caution on Lap 97, Newman was busted for entering the pits too fast and was forced to restart from the back of the lead lap in the 21st spot. The day looked bleak as Newman lost a lap to race leader Jeff Gordon on Lap 218. But Newman put himself in position to become the lucky dog, and on Lap 263 he got his lap back after the race’s third caution. By Lap 368 he had broken into the top 10 and 20 laps later into the top 5.

Sunday’s race looked to be a Hendrick Motorsports duel for the win, with Gordon and Jimmie Johnson battling it out for the organization’s 200th victory. But a late-race caution from David Reutimann’s dying No. 10 car on Lap 498 altered the complexion of the race, bringing out the day’s sixth caution.

Newman and everyone but Gordon and Johnson pitted. Newman restarted sixth, behind third-place Clint Bowyer. During the race’s first attempt at a green-white-checkered, Bowyer looked to the inside lane. After a push from Newman, Bowyer dive-bombed to make it three-wide with Gordon and Johnson. But three-wide didn’t work at Martinsville and all three leaders spun out. Newman seized the opportunity and crawled through the ensuing melee unscathed to take the lead spot.

After the race’s final caution, Newman brought the field to green for the second and last attempt at a green-white-checkered finish on Lap 513. Battling side by side with second-place AJ Allmendinger, Newman pulled ahead on the last lap to score his first win at the 0.526-mile short track.

“We were not a dominant race car today but we put ourselves in contention. The way the strategy and everything worked out, coming in for two tires and Clint kind of clearing out Turn One for us, we were fortunate to be in the right place at the right time,” Newman said.

“We have been in that position here and been in the wrong place at the wrong time and it's nice to be able to at least balance it out and get Outback in victory lane. That was really special for us, their first race with the team and if we get in the Top-10, we get free Bloomin' Onions if you go to Outback and mention my name,” Newman said, referring to Outback’s free Bloomin’ Onion special on the Monday after race day. Sunday marked Newman’s third top 10 of the year.

Newman’s win didn’t come without controversy. There has been much debate over whether the bump he gave Bowyer caused the melee that deprived Hendrick of their 200th victory.

“Well, if I was in Clint's position, I would have tried not crashing the guys and won the race,” Newman said. “I mean, I was trying to do the same thing to him as he did to the 24, and he actually - whether he was trying to block me or he was just trying to get his run on the 24, he pulled down and my little bump, I think it was a pretty good shot, propelled him up next to the 24."

“Whether he hit Turn One faster than he wanted to or not, he still has got three pedals on the car and a steering wheel; it's his job to control it. I don't know if he hit the curb or if he ran out of room or the 24 pinched him down,” he said.

Newman explained he was not trying to take out Bowyer or Gordon. “We were not trying to take him out by any means in that context, but just to be able to get track position and work my way up to third; and hopefully my tires would outrun the 24 and 48 in the last couple laps. But that didn't work.

“And then as soon as he (15) got the rundown into one, and for whatever reason, wore out, got loose, hit the curb, whatever, he definitely drove up into the 24 and ran out of room and caused a melee.

“But that's short track racing. We can be the best drivers in the world racing Sprint Cup stock cars, or we can be out there running hobby stocks, and the same exact thing would have happened,” Newman said.

Stewart didn’t have the adventure his teammate did, but he bounced back from going a lap down to finish 7th and complete a solid say for SHR.

Stewart, winner of last fall’s Martinsville race, started 15th in Sunday’s race. He spent most in the day in the top 15, running as high as 4th.

The long green runs didn’t work in Stewart’s favor. Despite a variety of changes, the crew could never get the handling right on the No. 14 Office Depot/Mobil 1 Chevrolet. On Lap 469, Stewart, in the 15th spot, fell a lap down to leader Johnson. Stewart, however, maintained lucky dog position and got his lap back after Reutimann brought out the caution on Lap 498.

After the melee that brought out the day’s final caution, Stewart restarted ninth on the second green-white-checkered and gained two spots to finish 7th, his third top-10 of the season.

Stewart was happy for his teammate.

“I’m ecstatic for Ryan. I got to see it on the replay during the caution after all the havoc broke loose. Ryan made an awesome move to the bottom. He was heads up enough to get in the gas and get through that hole before it closed up. He definitely earned this one, for sure,” Stewart said.

“Unfortunately, we had our worse run of the day the last run of the day. We got behind there and got a lap down, but clawed back to get the lucky dog and rallied back to seventh.”

After their show of strength at Martinsville, the two SHR teams sit comfortably in the top 8 in the Sprint Cup point standings. Stewart moved up one spot to 3rd, 12 points behind points leader Greg Biffle, and Newman jumped two spots to 8th, 24 points in back of Biffle.

Stewart-Haas Racing takes a break this weekend as the series is off for Easter. With their success, they’d probably rather be back on the track! When the series starts up again, they return to Texas, where Stewart won in the fall on the way to his third Sprint Cup championship. Newman finished 14th last spring and 16th in his last visit to the “No Limits” track.

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