SPEEDWAY | It wasn’t a Cinderella story, Ryan Newman’s victory in Sunday’s 20th Brickyard 400, but it made up for a race that lacked excitement.
Label it as the local kid — if local is statewide and age 35 is still kid-classifiable — making good.
Newman grew up in South Bend. He excelled on USAC’s sprint car circuit while attending high school and scraping together enough good grades to earn an engineering degree at Purdue. Then he made it into NASCAR, and eventually into victory lane.
But not at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in his first dozen attempts, until Sunday’s lucky 13th, when the two-tire strategy of his crew chief on his last pit stop vaulted him past four-time winner Jimmie Johnson and into first place in the final stint of the race.
Newman had a seven-second lead on Johnson when both were back at speed, though they trailed others who hadn’t pitted yet. By the time Newman, the pole-sitter, had assumed the lead again with 11 laps remaining, Johnson was but 3.6 seconds behind. Newman could see Johnson’s car behind him on the straightaways, and kept him there.
“I closed in, and he went to 100 percent,” Johnson said.
Newman floored it when he had to. And besides, stock cars at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway lumber around the corners. Passes are at a premium, and Sunday, passing was not in fashion.
“Catching (Newman) and passing is different,” Johnson said.
Newman beat Johnson by 2.657 seconds, with Kasey Kahne third and Tony Stewart, Newman’s co-owner at Stewart-Haas Racing, fourth.
Newman positioned himself for the lead when crew chief Matt Borland decided to change only the right-side tires on Newman’s Chevrolet. Johnson took four tires on the 134th lap. Borland had already planned the last stop to be a two-tire stop, and went through with it when Newman pitted on the next circuit. That made the difference.
“Matt’s call did it,” Newman said. “We had to have track position. It’s really so difficult to pass here, but we had a really good long-run car.”
So did Johnson, but this time Newman was the one in front, and could not be caught. Even a good pit stop by Johnson — whose final stop with 17.2 seconds, about four seconds more than a standard four-tire servicing — probably wouldn’t have made a difference. At least, Johnson didn’t think so.
“We could have been four seconds closer leaving pit road,” said Johnson.
Still behind, and still in a spot where a pass probably was impossible to effect.
A Johnson victory would have been a feel-good story, because it would have been his fifth win in the race. But Newman’s was better, not only because he’s a native Hoosier, but needed another achievement for his resume. Stewart-Haas, in a sponsorship crunch, is dropping Newman and his car when the season ends. He was told by Stewart two weeks ago, when the Sprint Cup series was in New Hampshire.
“Even before Ryan came and drove for us, we were friends,” Stewart said. “That made the phone call of telling him that much harder. It’s my friend out there that won the race today, too. I guess it’s extreme to extreme. It’s on the good end of the extreme this week.”
“It’s been an emotional roller-coaster,” Newman said. “Having last weekend off was good timing.”
Now Stewart-Haas has a lame-duck driver with both a Daytona 500 (2008) and Brickyard 400 to his credit, and who is four spots out of the Chase, NASCAR’s playoff series.
Newman, who grabbed the pole from Stewart on Saturday’s last qualifying run, led the first 29 laps. Then Johnson took over, and would lead 73, most of them in three long stints.
“I don’t show a lot of emotions, but it’s the same feeling as when I won the Daytona 500,” Newman said. “I ran at Winchester, Salem, IRP, little tracks like Anderson. That makes it special.
“I lived in Jeff Gordon’s old shop in Pittsboro way before I was in NASCAR. I slept with the race cars. I think of those things more than I carry the emotion on my cheeks.”