Tough Fight For Chase Spot Underway For Gordon, Stewart, Newman
By winning the Crown Royal Presents the Samuel Deeds 400 at the Brickyard Powered by BigMachineRecords.com on July 28 from the pole position, Ryan Newman of South Bend, Ind., can now be considered a “Brickyard Legend.” He became just the second Indiana-born driver to win the NASCAR race at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, joining team owner Tony Stewart of Columbus, Ind.
But now the focus for Newman, Stewart and another driver with deep Indiana roots – four-time Brickyard winner Jeff Gordon – turns to the “Race to the Chase.”
There are just six races left before the 12-driver lineup for NASCAR’s “Chase for the Sprint Cup Championship” is determined Sept. 7 at Richmond International Raceway. Newman helped his cause by scoring his first victory of the season with his win at the Brickyard last week. But he enters this weekend’s contest at Pocono Raceway 16th in the standings, 25 points out of the Chase. Two drivers also are ahead of him but outside of the top 10 with victories this season. That is crucial because the two Wild Card positions are awarded to the drivers in positions 11-20 with the most victories in 2013.
Gordon is 10th in the standings. If he maintains that position after Richmond, he would make the Chase as the top-10 drivers in points are automatically eligible. Stewart is 11th with one victory, and Martin Truex Jr. is 12th with a win. So Newman still has to pick up the pace between now and Richmond if he is going to contend for this year’s NASCAR Sprint Cup championship.
“We came here, proved that we can come back and fight back,” Newman said last Sunday at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. “We're not out of this Chase; we're not out of this chance for a championship. This Wild Card helps us, but it doesn't guarantee anything. We're still outside the points margin.
“We just got to keep our nose to the grindstone. There's still a ton of racing left. Another three wins before the Chase starts would be great.”
Perhaps Newman can put his engineering degree from Purdue University to work at the flat, triangle-shaped Pocono Raceway this weekend because it has similar characteristics to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. And since Newman was victorious at the Brickyard last week, perhaps crew chief Matt Borland can devise a similar setup that can carry Newman to victory for the second week in a row.
Newman has one win (2003), eight top-five and 11 top-10 finishes in 23 career starts at Pocono.
A reunion with Borland helped to pave the way for the Brickyard victory, which could prime a run into the Chase.
“We worked on building or rekindling our relationship as a driver-crew chief in the offseason,” Newman said. “Matt took the responsibility on his shoulders once we decided what we were going to do and put together a group of guys. Some had tremendous experience; some had no experience at all. That's been something that's kind of been tough for me to work through because of where I am in my career. I want the best guys.
“Matt took the weight on his shoulders to take those guys and make them the best guys. Today they were. It hasn't been like that the entire season. We've gone through some growing pains. Captain Obvious would have raised the flag instantly. That's learning. I know it's been tough for me and him. Those are the people he believes in. Those are the people we believe in.
“I have kind of sat back and let him do that part. As a crew chief, that's his job. My job is to go out there, give him the feedback, be responsible with what we do so we can have something at the end of the race.
“All that is a big challenge. It's a big challenge for every team. I think a lot of people didn't see that or know that as to how our team came together for 2013.”
Borland admitted the team got off to a slow start. But over the course of a long, grueling season, there remains time for this combination to contend for the championship in Newman’s final year at Stewart-Haas Racing.
“We got four races at the end of last season to try to get things rolling again,” Borland said. “Things went really well. I think we finished like 11th, 12th, third and fifth. This is easy, right back to where we were. But starting this season, I realized all the things that I hadn't realized over the past several years of not being a crew chief. Like he said, we had to build a whole team of people, get people in place, figure out where people do their best work, where they don't do their best work, how to make all those people fit together the best we can.
“That's definitely been a challenge all year. But I know for me, I wish I were more prepared starting the season than what I was to help Ryan with this season. Like he said, there's been a lot of mistakes along the way this year. I know I've learned from each and every one of them. You get better and better each week in realizing the things you're doing right and the things you're doing wrong.
“When you have a weekend like we had at the Brickyard, it's great. Everything went perfect. This is the kind of weekend you shoot for every weekend. Reality is that doesn't happen very often. You enjoy it this weekend. You learn what things you did right, what you did wrong. When you sit back and think about it, you really didn't do anything different, things just worked out. Hopefully we can keep this cycle going. But the cycle always changes. You always have those down weeks. You always have those down months. You always have those times where you're not sure if it's going to cycle back up. But it always does and goes back the other way.”
By having a driver with an engineering degree it creates the unique opportunity for feedback that other driver and crew chief relationships don’t have. But it is sometimes cause for bitter disagreement.
“I think it's huge for half the reasons,” Borland said. “We have a common language. We can talk about problems that are going on with the car. I can tell him what we're thinking about doing. He understands. He can pitch to me some different ideas looking at things differently. Gets me thinking about things in a different manner.”
“We have some hellacious arguments, too,” Newman interjected.
“That's what I was going to say earlier. You typically get in the biggest fights with the people you like the best. I know I do. You get in huge fights with your wife, with your friends. Like he said, between Daniel, one of our racing engineers, Ryan and myself, we all have very strong opinions, we think we're right in what we're thinking, and that's the reason we're thinking that. We tend to get in arguments because we think we're right. What that ends up doing is getting you to look at things a little bit differently. That's huge.
“To your point, the other part that makes Ryan as good as he is, has nothing to do with the engineering side, but he can feel everything that's going on with that race car. As much as you hate it, 99 times out of the 100, he's right about what he's feeling. He's pointing you down a road, if you look there; you're going to find the light at the end of the tunnel.
“I think between feeling those things and being able to describe those things in a common language really helps.”
While Newman and Borland are attempting to make a stretch run just to get into the Chase, Gordon and Stewart helped their respective causes last week at the Brickyard in their bid to contend for another title.
Gordon is 10th in the standings but is just one point ahead of Stewart for that prized position. But Gordon is winless this year, which puts his bid at the Chase in jeopardy if he falls out of the top 10.
But the driver who spent his formative racing years in Pittsboro, Ind., has an impressive record at the 2.5-mile triangle nestled in the Pocono Mountains with six wins, 18 top-five and 28 top-10 finishes in 41 starts. He is the defending winner of this race and was 12th in June at Pocono.
"This is a very challenging track, but I love racing here,” Gordon said. “In June, we had a fast race car, but we struggled early in the run. We need to find some more speed early in the run while also having a fast car over the long runs. I love the fight in this team, Last year, we battled hard all day long and got into a position to battle for the win. We got a little bit of a 'gift' at the end to win, but we worked hard to put ourselves in a position to take advantage of any miscue. It was Alan's (Gustafson, crew chief) birthday and he had family with him, and my family was here with me, too. It was just a special win.
“We've had some fast race cars, but we just need to string together some strong finishes. It seems like every time we get some decent finishes, something happens to halt that momentum. We have six races left before the Chase, and we need to make the most of them so we can earn a spot. If you earn a spot, the points reset puts you right back in the title hunt."
Stewart is lurking one point behind Gordon and was able to relish Newman’s win at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway as his team owner.
Stewart has two Pocono wins, 12 top-five and 21 top-10 finishes in 29 career starts. He has three-straight top-five finishes at Pocono, including a third in June 2012, fifth in this race last year and fourth this past June.
Stewart’s fourth-place finish in the Brickyard was a much-needed boost.
“Definitely today was a big step, obviously,” Stewart said. “Our teammates are running really good, too, obviously. I think we still have some work to do. It's proof that we can do it. Ryan is proof that our organization can do it. We just got to hit on it. Even though we ran fourth today, it's a confidence boost for us on the 14 team, as well, to know we have the tools in place of accomplishing the goal, it's just a matter of getting there.”
There is one Brickyard Legend that definitely knows how to “get there” and that is five-time Sprint Cup champion and four-time Brickyard 400 winner Jimmie Johnson. Although a late-race four-tire pit stop may have cost him a fifth win at the Brickyard, Johnson has an incredible 75-point lead over Clint Bowyer in the standings. If Johnson could add 21 points to his lead over Bowyer, he could take two races off and still maintain first in the standings.
“I feel like we have some clarity right now in what the car likes and what it wants, and really that’s the only thing that we as a team go by and really any team does,” Johnson said. “There are a lot of times when you work on your stuff and you test and you race and you build some theories, and that’s all we do week in and week out as to why the car is tight or why it’s loose. Sometimes your theories play out and you’re smart and you’re here in victory lane, and other times they don’t. I feel like we have a clearer vision now of what the car wants, what this Gen-6 car wants, and we’re getting smarter and smarter with it, and that leads into stretches where you can click off the wins and the finishes.
“I’m excited to have some clarity, right now. I think we understand that our package, regardless if it’s a short track or big track and even superspeedway, we’ve been awfully good there, too, so we have clarity right now, and as long as we can keep it, we’ll be in good shape.”
Johnson can pretty much coast to the “Chase for the Championship” but for Newman, Gordon and Stewart it’s a six-week battle just to get there.