Ryan Newman not saying 'what if'
CONCORD, N.C. -- Ryan Newman has an engineering degree from Purdue, so he can do the math.
Take 150 points from Clint Bowyer for having a car out of tolerance after Richmond, where the Richard Childress Racing team was warned, instead of the following week at New Hampshire, and Newman would have made the Chase by eight points.
Take the 577 points Newman accumulated through the first four races of the Chase with the 10 bonus points he would have from his win at Phoenix, and Newman would be in fifth place, 86 behind four-time defending Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson.
"Yeah, I know," Newman said as he prepared for Saturday night's race at Charlotte Motor Speedway, where he typically is strong.
It would be easy for Newman to feel anger or disappointment that Bowyer was only warned at Richmond because it's not often you have a championship-caliber team, and his definitely would be had he found a way into the Chase.
In four races, the No. 39 Stewart-Haas team has an average finish of 7.5, better than the top four of Johnson, Denny Hamlin, Kevin Harvick and Jeff Gordon, all at 7.75. Newman's average finish of 7.85 over the past seven races is a series best.
What if? What if?
"It's not the first RCR car that has been illegal," Newman said with a smile. "It's not going to be the last. You can have an illegal Hendrick car, you can have an illegal Penske car and a Gibbs car. It's just unfortunate the way it all worked out."
Funny, he didn't mention Stewart-Haas cars being potentially illegal.
"I'm sure NASCAR could find something we didn't do," Newman quipped. "I also skipped Roush and RPM. I was just using a few examples."
Glad we clarified that.
Maybe, this is an argument for expanding the Chase field to 15 drivers, as NASCAR is considering for next season. With Newman in contention, there would be five drivers within 86 points of the lead and six within 107.
Add 14th-place Jamie McMurray, with his solid Chase start and two wins during the regular season, and there'd be seven within 107.
Let's keep the focus on Newman. The turnaround of his team has been phenomenal. He's gone from six top-10s in the first 23 races to six in the past seven. He is the perfect example of a team peaking at the right time.
Well, almost the right time. He needed to peak a few weeks earlier to make this run more meaningful.
"Guys would be worried about us if we were in it," crew chief Tony Gibson said of the Chase. "That's been our deal. We never give up no matter what. ... Teams know that about us. They never count us out. It's pretty cool to steal points from those Chase guys."
If the right foot goes forward, then the left foot is going to follow. Our right foot is forward now. Next year it'll be our left foot.” -- Ryan Newman
So what's the biggest difference in Newman's team now and in the summer months, when it averaged 18.0 during a 10-race stretch? A lot of little things to help aerodynamics and handling, the same things that have team owner Tony Stewart running so well.
Had Stewart not run out of gas a lap and a half from the finish at New Hampshire, he would have two Chase wins and be only 13 points out of the lead, instead of fifth and 107 back.
What if? What if?
Perhaps the biggest factor for Newman is pit stops.
"Our pit stops have been almost two seconds better the last few races," Newman said. "If you stop three times a race, that's six seconds. I can't make up six seconds over Jimmie Johnson. I'm just happy to be running with him now."
Newman could be running with Johnson for a championship if NASCAR had pulled the trigger and penalized Bowyer at Richmond, as some inside the garage will argue should have happened. But officials insist that car was legal, and the fact that they penalized Bowyer a week later makes it hard to dispute what they say.
Newman has been as critical of NASCAR as anybody, and he's not tossing any stones.
"It's part of racing," Newman said. "I still say we could have put ourselves in a better position to not have to rely on him getting fined 150 points. Yeah, he was warned at Richmond, but that's water behind the bridge.
"We were pretty good at this time last year, too, and didn't win anything."
Not really. Newman was in the Chase, but four races in he was 223 points behind Johnson with an average finish of 13.5.
The last time Newman was this strong at this point in the season was before the Chase era in 2003 at Penske Racing. He started the final 10 races with two wins -- he had eight on the season -- and six top-10s. His average finish during that stretch was an amazing 3.6.
His only finishes outside the top 10 during the final 10 were because of crashes at Atlanta and Homestead-Miami, so we know he has championship potential.
"We've established that," Newman said.
The focus now is the same as it is for half a dozen drivers that didn't make the Chase: Finish 13th in points. It doesn't carry the million-dollar bonus that the driver who finished 11th with a 10-driver field did in the first few years of the format, but it's the top goal available for non-Charsers.
Don't think drivers aren't paying attention to that, either.
"Yeah, you notice what's going on out there," said Joey Logano, 20th in points. "We're still racing for points. We pay attention to what other teams around us are doing. We want to finish as high as we can."
And they all want to build momentum for next year, so they don't have to play this "what if" game.
"If the right foot goes forward, then the left foot is going to follow," Newman said. "Our right foot is forward now. Next year it'll be our left foot."
Sounds like Newman learned a little philosophy in college, too.
David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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