Chase Is On For Newman
September 13, 2004 | 9:22 A.M. EST
"We won the battle, but we haven't won the war," Newman said of the point standings. "The ALLTEL team will get our guns polished up for the last 10 races and do what we have to do as a team to stay focused and take the right race cars to the right race tracks and make the right calls. The driver will try not to make any mistakes and make sure we don't have any DNFs, engine failures and mechanical problems and go from there."
Remaining in the top 10 did not come easy for Newman and the ALLTEL team Saturday night. The weekend started out well, with Newman winning his first career pole at RIR, the fifth of the season and the 23rd of his career. Earning the pole helped Newman to lead the race's first lap and earn five very important bonus points. Jimmie Johnson passed Newman on the following lap to take the lead.
The ALLTEL team made its first pit stop on lap 53, with Newman reporting to Matt Borland that the car felt pretty good, but was slightly tight in the center of the turns. Borland opted for right side tires only, and sent Newman back to the track in third place. Jeremy Mayfield, whose team took fuel only, became the new race leader.
Newman fell back to fifth prior to the team's second pit stop on lap 143. With four fresh tires and a track bar adjustment, Newman moved up to third once again. At this point, Newman was comfortably eighth in the series standings.
On lap 178, the dynamic of the points chase changed as contact between Jimmy Spencer and Casey Mears triggered an eight-car accident. The cars involved included points leader Johnson, who sustained the most damage, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Mark Martin, Jamie McMurray and Dale Jarrett, all of whom were in contention for the Cup.
With Johnson in the garage, 12 cars were, at that point, qualified for the "Chase for the Championship," as they were within 400 points of the leader. Newman, only 310 points behind Johnson at that time, appeared to be locked-in to the Chase.
On lap 264, green-flag pit stops started, with Newman and the ALLTEL team entering pit road on lap 274. The team rejoined the field in 21st-place, one lap down to the leaders. As green-flag stops cycled around, Newman would return to the lead lap. Unfortunately, the caution flag once again came out before all of the teams had cycled. The caution left eight cars vying for the lead lap to restart the race in front of the leaders. The ALLTEL team was hoping for a quick caution so Newman could return to the tail of the lead lap and begin making up positions.
The caution would never come, however. As the ALLTEL Dodge grew tighter, Newman began to slip through the field. With every car that passed him, he lost more points to new point leader Jeff Gordon, and to 11th place Jamie McMurray.
"Matt, are we OK point wise?" Newman asked with 15 laps remaining in the race.
"We're real close, Ryan," Borland answered. "You're in by about six points right now."
As the tension grew, Borland once again keyed the mic to warn Newman that the ALLTEL Dodge was one-lap shy of finishing the race on fuel. Newman was advised to begin conserving fuel, while at the same time, hold onto his position.
Newman managed to finish the race in 20th place, the team's worst finish in four weeks. Newman pulled onto pit road following the race, unsure if he had made the "Chase for the Championship." At the pit box, Borland and engineer Roy McCauley frantically tried to figure the standings. When Newman was told that he did, in fact, make the cut, the news was met with a collective sigh of relief rather than ecstatic joy.
"Everybody is in the same boat now," Newman said. "It's just who gets to be a survivor. I feel good about it, but like I've said, it doesn't matter if it's this race or one in the last 10, any little thing can take you out - any person, little debris, bad luck just like tonight getting caught a lap down. We were basically a 100 feet from getting past the 5 car (Terry Labonte) to get the 'Lucky Dog' deal. That would have changed our night totally, but it just didn't happen that way."