By Seth Livingstone
NASCAR Wire Service
AVONDALE, Ariz.– The right side of Ryan Newman’s Caterpillar Mining Chevrolet bore more than a few dents and scuffs, emblematic of its epic struggle on the track.
At least one or two of those blemishes might deserve a place in history, representing the bumping of Sunoco Rookie of the Year frontrunner Kyle Larson that ultimately gave Newman the chance to battle for his first NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship next Sunday at Homestead-Miami Speedway (3 p.m. ET on ESPN).
Although he took little pride in the method, Newman did what he needed to do on the final lap of Sunday’s Quicken Loans Race for Heroes 500 at Phoenix International Raceway.
Simply put, push came to shove as Newman forced Larson up against the wall to accomplish his mission.
“I wasn’t proud of what I had to do, but I did what I had to do as cleanly as I could do it,” Newman said. “I’m not the kind of guy to turn somebody, so I just drifted as much as I could to get in there. My Caterpillar Mining Chevy stuck on the apron and we made it.
“I guess the only mistake I made all day was showing these guys what I’ll do on the last lap when everything is on the line. I think if Kyle Larson was in my shoes, he’d have done the exact same thing. I don’t like racing that way, but there’s a lot on the line here.”
Newman, 36, is in his first year driving for Richard Childress Racing, a team which last won a championship with Dale Earnhardt Sr. in 1994. Competing in his 13th full Sprint Cup season, he has never finished higher than sixth in the point standings.
Although Newman has won 17 NSCS races and 51 poles, he’ll be the only title contender this season without a victory on his 2014 resume.
“Just to have a shot at it (a championship) is amazing,” Newman said. “With respect to RCR and Dale Earnhardt Sr., if you’re going to follow in anybody’s footsteps and have some history, that’s the man.
“But I won’t strap into the race car thinking of that next Sunday. I’ll strap into the race car thinking about what we’ve got to do to get the Caterpillar Chevrolet into Victory Lane.”
Childress thinks the elder Earnhardt would have been proud of Newman’s efforts at Phoenix.
“Ryan drove with his heart,” Childress said. “That is what it took to get in.
“It is unbelievable … (being) in it for the championship when we go down there (to Homestead-Miami Speedway). That (last set) of tires was the worst set that we had all day long. We had run in the top five, six, seven, eight. Then that set of tires just knocked us plumb out of it. But (Newman) made it happen.”
Actually, Newman and his pit crew had to make things happen early on after sliding from his 20th starting position to 25th in the first 11 laps, then as far back as 27th after the race’s first caution. Gaining positions on consecutive pit stops, Newman broke into the top 10 by the time the race was 100 laps old.
Newman entered Sunday’s race third in the point standings, needing a ninth-place finish or better to clinch a spot in the Championship 4. Rallying from 14th with 34 laps left, he was sitting in ninth on the final restart with 12 laps remaining.
However, Dale Earnhardt Jr. passed him on the restart. Then Marcos Ambrose got by him on fresher tires. After that, Larson roared by.
Newman was left in a desperate situation, knowing he had to make a decisive move on the final lap.
“I tried to get the best run I could off Turn 2,” Newman said. “And I had one of the best runs of the race I had off of Turn 2 at that point. Kyle was right on (Ambrose’s) rear bumper and when he went into Turn 3, I think he slipped just a little bit. I just went down to the bottom, no matter what. I figured I’m going to try this and see if it works – and it did. I don’t know how much of it was racing luck.”
Newman said his last-lap maneuver would probably have been impossible before the track at Phoenix International Raceway was slightly revamped during a 2011 repaving project.
“They paved that (area) down there, I guess, for a reason,” he said.
Race winner Kevin Harvick wasn’t surprised by Newman’s move and knew he needed to be wary of similar tactics as the race leader.
“In the end, you’ve got to be ready for everything,” Harvick said. “The 24 (Jeff Gordon) and 2 (Brad Keselowski) racing on the bottom, to me, had the most intriguing lineup. This format has just created (situations where) you have to do things you normally wouldn’t do.”