Newman has same car as last week
But that climb shouldn't be all that long or hard, considering Newman finished second in the Challenge.
"We're looking for one spot better in the 600," the driver of the No. 12 Alltel Dodge said. "Obviously, we had a great race car (in the Challenge). The entire weekend was great. The pit crew did an excellent job in the qualification situation with the 12 and a half second stop. It got us good track position for the start of the race and we held it for most of the race. We didn't give it up for any reason. The car was extremely good, especially on old tires. We just had a lot of fun."
Newman led more than half (49 laps) of the 90-lap Challenge finale before a gamble to stay with worn tires rather than replace them with new ones came back to haunt Newman and crew chief Matt Borland. Last season's champion Matt Kenseth passed Newman with less than three laps to go to take the $1 million paycheck for the victory.
"Matt did a very good job of racing me clean, and I felt I did a very good job of racing him clean when I was trying to hold him off," Newman said. "I could have done some things to him that he wouldn't have appreciated. I think No. 1 we've got a lot of respect for each other, and No. 2, we were both taking a risk of losing a victory and a million dollar bonus. It always depends on who you're racing as to how you race them ... we had a great race for basically all 17 laps before he got past me.
"Unfortunately we led a lot of laps in a race that didn't pay to lead a lot of laps, but we led a couple that paid some money and came home with a second-place finish," Newman said. "It was hard-earned. We went there and did the best job we absolutely could. We're there to win. The money is just a bonus. That's the way I've always looked at it. It would have been nice to win and get the million, but we can't go back in time and redo it."
Not only did Newman have success in the exhibition all-star Challenge, he has a pretty strong track record in points-paying regular season races at Lowe's Motor Speedway, too. In six career starts at the 1½-mile suburban Charlotte track, Newman has three poles and three top-10 finishes, including a runner-up showing there last fall, and a fifth-place outing in last May's Coca-Cola 600.
If there is a surprise of sorts in store for this weekend, it's that Newman and Borland were so impressed with the particular chassis that Newman drove in the Challenge, that they've retrofitted it and are bringing it back for Sunday's grueling 600-mile, 400-lap, roughly four-hour event, the longest of the season on the Nextel Cup circuit.
"The biggest thing is it's the same race car," Newman said. "We realized what a great race car it was, and we're going to take it back and give us an opportunity to get some feedback about how good the car is and what to expect. Strategy is not a huge deal. We learned some things about the tires and what not, but that's pretty much it. Gas mileage is very important. It's important every place we go to. You want to have great fuel mileage. That way you can be the last one out, and that way you're not typically stuck in the pits when the yellow flag comes out and you get caught two laps down. That's the biggest thing."
Added Borland, "One of the biggest issues of the 600 is making sure you've got a car that's handling well. You'll have one or two long green-flag runs and you've got to have a car that handles well for the entire run or you can go a lap down pretty quick. The durability of pieces -- engine, transmission -- has to be able to handle a 600-mile race plus all the practice you put on it that week.
"All-in-all (the Nextel Challenge) was good practice for the 600. We had a real good car and we'll bring the same car back for the 600 and see if we can't do a little better this weekend."
Not only is fatigue a factor that teams have to consider when making their strategy for the 600, keeping on top of the changing conditions is probably just as crucial. The race starts in daylight in late afternoon, cycles through dusk, and finishes up under the lights roughly four hours after the green flag first falls.
And during that four-hour span, conditions can change dramatically when it comes to heat, humidity and temperature. There have been past 600s where the outside temperature has dropped as much as 30 degrees from start to finish.
"We check the weather all through the day and night and try to predict what the track is going to do in the next run and the next two runs and get ahead of what the track's doing," Borland said. "If you're chasing the track it can get you behind, especially in the 600 where you have so many green flag runs.
"The driver has to have a real good feel with what's going on with that car as the track's changing and being able to distinguish between the track changing and other things changing on the track so you make sure you stay ahead of the track and go in the right direction. If you don't keep up with the track it's bad enough. If you go in the wrong direction it takes quite a well to get back in shape."
Perhaps the biggest contrast between Newman in last year's 600 and in this year's event is overall performance. At this time last year, Newman was 27th in the standings, 660 points out of first and had only one win (en route to an eventual series-leading eight wins by the end of the season).
This year, thus far, is dramatically different. Newman enters Sunday's race in sixth-place, just 201 points behind series leader Dale Earnhardt.
And, in a sense, Newman has somewhat borrowed a page from Kenseth's playbook. Kenseth led Winston Cup with five wins in 2002, but finished eighth in the final standings. Last season, he won just once, but incredible consistency is what drove him toward dominating the standings virtually the entire season, culminating with the championship.
"At this point last year we were 27th in the points and 660 points out," Borland said. "We only had one win at this point. The wins come in streaks, but to be finishing as many races as we are now and running a lot more consistently than we did last year, it feels a lot better."
And finishing one spot higher than Newman did last Saturday would make things feel even better.
Jerry Bonkowski covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at Motorsportwriter@MSN.com.
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