NASCAR & Auto Racing

NASCAR Sprint Cup: New format fuels dramatic road to Homestead

In this Oct. 31, 2014, file photo, Sprint Cup Series driver Ryan Newman sits in his car in the garage during practice at Texas Motor Speedway in Fort Worth, Texas. Newman, Joey Logano, Kevin Harvick and Denny Hamlin will race Sunday, Nov. 16, 2014, at Homestead-Miami Speedway for the championship.
In this Oct. 31, 2014, file photo, Sprint Cup Series driver Ryan Newman sits in his car in the garage during practice at Texas Motor Speedway in Fort Worth, Texas. Newman, Joey Logano, Kevin Harvick and Denny Hamlin will race Sunday, Nov. 16, 2014, at Homestead-Miami Speedway for the championship. AP

Ryan Newman, winless and largely inconspicuous through NASCAR’s 2014 Sprint Cup Series season, has become the stealth candidate for a championship through an otherwise turbulent Chase for the Sprint Cup.

Almost by force of will, Newman arrives for the climactic Ford EcoBoost 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway on Sunday with as much of a chance to ascend the throne as remaining rivals Kevin Harvick, Denny Hamlin and Joey Logano.

Newman’s position among the contenders became secure only after he slammed past Kyle Larson, knocking the talented rookie into the wall, on the last lap at Phoenix on Sunday.

That advanced him from 12th to 11th in the finishing order and rewarded him with the point he needed to supplant four-time Cup champion Jeff Gordon in the Championship 4.

“We did what we had to, as clean as I possibly could,” said Newman, in his 13th full season but first at the wheel of Richard Childress Racing’s No.31 Caterpillar Chevrolet. “I wasn’t proud of it, but I’ll do what I’ve got to do to make it to this next round. … I think if [Larson] was in my position, he would have done the same thing.”

Although rarely engaged in battles for the lead, the bull-shouldered, 36-year-old driver whom ESPN analyst Brad Daugherty described as “tougher to pass than a kidney stone” has exhibited characteristic stubbornness and persistence in spades throughout.

In the end, he earned his way as the Chase field was whittled from 16 drivers to four by stringing together five consecutive top-10 finishes, including a third at Martinsville, Virginia, and a fifth at Talladega, Alabama, in the past nine races.

He has 16 career victories but has never finished higher than sixth in Cup points.

Here’s how NASCAR’s new format played out:

CHALLENGER ROUND

Race: MyAFibStory.com 400.

When/where: Sept.14; Joliet, Illinois.

Recap: Brad Keselowski overcame an unscheduled pit stop to tighten a loose wheel and charged back from 16th over the final 80 laps to win and guarantee a spot in the Contender Round. He boldly bolted through a gap between dueling leaders Kevin Harvick and rookie Kyle Larson with 15 laps left to take a lead he refused to relinquish.

Championship 4: Denny Hamlin, whose Toyota blew an engine in practice Saturday, thought he had motor problems early in the race but ran all day and finished sixth. Joey Logano claimed fourth and Kevin Harvick fifth as Chase drivers took eight of the top-10 finishing positions. Ryan Newman settled for 15th after scraping the wall and blowing a tire.

Race: Sylvania 300.

When/where: Sept.21; Loudon, New Hampshire.

Recap: Joey Logano outgunned Kevin Harvick and Brad Keselowski on a restart 29 laps from the finish to notch his fourth 2014 victory and the seventh of his career. Like Keselowski the week before, he assured advancement into the Contender Round. Harvick claimed third place. The disjointed race featured 13 caution periods over the final 134 laps.

Championship 4: A broken fuel probe prevented Denny Hamlin’s crew from refilling the tank on an early pit stop. Hamlin lost four laps while the probe was replaced, subsequently skidded into an accident and finished 37th. Ryan Newman struggled home to 18th after being caught up in an accident.

Race: AAA 400.

When/where: Sept.28; Dover, Delaware.

Recap: Four-time Cup champion Jeff Gordon, his title hopes damaged by a blown tire and 26th-place finish at Loudon, New Hamphire, assured his advancement with a dominating stretch run and 4.3-second margin over runner-up Brad Keselowski. Kasey Kahn rebounded from four laps down to outpoint AJ Allmendinger for the 12th and final Contender Round berth. The cut also eliminated 2004 Cup champion Kurt Busch, Greg Biffle and Aric Almirola.

Championship 4: Kevin Harvick ran at the front for 223 of the first 248 laps only to encounter a major problem with his left-front wheel. He salvaged a 13th-place run after repairs. Joey Logano added a second fourth-place finish in the Challenger Round to go with his Sylvania 300 victory. Ryan Newman finished eighth, and Denny Hamlin was 12th.

CONTENDER ROUND

Race: Hollywood Casino 400.

When/where: Oct.5; Kansas City, Kansas.

Recap: To everyone except Joey Logano, who won, the primary story line in a race named for a casino involved who rolled snake-eyes. Six-time champion Jimmie Johnson, fan favorite Dale Earnhardt Jr. and 2012 champ Brad Keselowski suffered setbacks that severely undermined their title prospects. Johnson got caught up in a four-car crash, and Earnhardt and Keselowski slammed the wall after tires exploded. In order, they finished 40th, 39th and 36th. Logano outdueled Kyle Larson by a half-second at the end.

Championship 4: Kevin Harvick, seeing what was happening all around him, pitted out of sequence thinking he had a tire going flat. He didn’t and fell a lap behind. But he recovered to finish 12th. Ryan Newman hit the finish line sixth, and Denny Hamlin was seventh.

Race: Bank of America 500.

When/where: Oct.11; Charlotte, North Carolina.

Recap: Emotions flared and skirmishes erupted after a chaotic joust that left only Kevin Harvick truly happy. A blown engine brought out the race’s eighth caution flag and set up a two-lap dash and bash to the checkered flag. Harvick, who led 162 of the 334 laps, got there a half-second before runner-up Jeff Gordon to secure a spot in the Elimination Round. Brad Keselowski got shuffled back to 16th in the final two laps. Action continued onto pit road and into the garage as Keselowski’s bullish driving after the checkered flag enraged Denny Hamlin, Matt Kenseth and Tony Stewart.

Championship 4: Hamlin had to be restrained from going after Keselowski after postrace bumper-banging. (Kenseth did get to Keselowski and clamped him in a headlock.) But Hamlin did finish ninth. Joey Logano, fourth again, made it 5 for 5 in top-five finishes in the Chase. Ryan Newman finished seventh.

Race: Geico 500.

When/where: Oct. 19; Talladega, Alabama.

Recap: Brad Keselowski, Jimmie Johnson and Dale Earnhardt Jr. started the typically crash-infested Talladega race knowing only a victory would advance them into the Eliminator Round of eight. Keselowski got it with, ironically, an aerodynamic drafting assist from Charlotte nemesis Matt Kenseth in the second green-white-checkered “overtime.” Johnson led 84 of the 194 laps but lost any shot at a record-tying seventh Cup championship when he plummeted to 24th in the race’s final stages. Earnhardt couldn’t avoid a multicar crash on the final lap.

Championship 4: Ryan Newman actually led the next-to-last lap in a side-by-side duel with Keselowski. Though he got traffic-jammed back to fifth, Newman’s fourth consecutive finish of eighth or better kept him in the Chase. Kevin Harvick finished ninth, Joey Logano was 11th, and Denny Hamlin was 18th to advance.

ELIMINATOR ROUND

Race: Goody’s Headache 500.

When/where: Oct.26; Martinsville, Virginia.

Recap: Victory arrived a week late, but it left Dale Earnhardt Jr. ecstatic. He pitted for fresh tires along with most lead-lap rivals during the last of 15 caution periods. Restarting fifth with six laps remaining, he made quick work of those on worn tires to surge to a narrow victory over Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jeff Gordon. A mechanical failure caused Brad Keselowski to slow almost to a halt and triggered a multicar crash that saddled him with 31st place.

Championship 4: Braking into first turn on a green-flag restart, Matt Kenseth’s Toyota lost tire traction and knocked Kevin Harvick into a spin and crash. Repairs in the garage cost Harvick 43 laps, and his 33rd-place finish jeopardized his title hopes. But Ryan Newman finished third, Joey Logano was fifth, and Denny Hamlin was eighth.

Race: AAA Texas 500.

When/where: Nov.2; Fort Worth, Texas.

Recap: Consider this a welcome consolation prize for Jimmie Johnson, delighted to survive two overtimes that again cast Brad Keselowski as an abused villain. On the next-to-last restart off caution, Johnson and Jeff Gordon dueled side-by-side for the lead into turn one when Keselowski spotted a narrow gap between them and tried to shoot through it. Heavy contact with Gordon caused Gordon’s left rear tire to begin deflating, sending him into a spin a half-lap later. A spirited fracas that erupted when Gordon confronted Keselowski on pit road and embroiled crewmen and officials left Keselowski spitting blood.

Championship 4: Kevin Harvick nudged past Keselowski and into second place on the final restart to revive championship aspirations. (His shove of Keselowski after drivers climbed from cars served to further inflame emotions.) Denny Hamlin finished 11th, Joey Logano was 12th, and Ryan Newman was 15 in enhance points positions.

Race: Quicken Loans 500k.

When/where: Nov.9; Avondale, Arizona.

Recap: Kevin Harvick, unlikely to reach the Championship 4 without a victory, achieved it on a track on which he had won three of the previous four Cup races. He held off Jeff Gordon by 1.6 seconds and led 264 of the 312 laps after having paced 224 in a March romp. Second place wasn’t good enough for Gordon, ousted by Ryan Newman’s Homestead-or-bust move on the final lap. Matt Kenseth finished third and Brad Keselowski fourth, but neither advanced.

Championship 4: Newman started the last lap 12th. He needed to finish 11th. That put rookie Kyle Larson in the bull’s-eye. Newman dove inside Larson into Turn 3, skidded up to punch Larson’s Target car into the wall and earned the point he needed to supplant Gordon. Denny Hamlin and Joey Logano both fell off the lead lap at times because of pit miscues. But timely caution periods aided their resurgence to fifth- and sixth-place finishes that kept their title hopes alive.

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