The immediate reaction to Ryan Newman’s move on Kyle Larson on the final lap of Sunday’s NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race at Phoenix International Raceway was one of “wow,” and “I can’t believe he did that.”
It has moved Newman into the championship finale as one of four drivers with a shot to become a first-time series champion.
And additionally, it’s opened up another subplot: Newman, trying to deliver Richard Childress his first Cup title in 20 years, will be going against Kevin Harvick, Childress’ driver from 2001 through 2013, who came close on many occasions but was never able to deliver Childress a title. Of course Harvick now drives for Stewart-Haas Racing, Newman’s old team.
It’s really a fascinating prospect. Newman has been in the crosshairs all Chase long as the underdog, particularly given the fact he has failed to win a race and scored only four top-five finishes. Yet he’s been entirely consistent throughout the year, played the system to his advantage, and given Childress a driver with a shot at the title courtesy of a move Childress’ legendary driver, the late Dale Earnhardt, would have been proud of.
Newman’s aggression to Larson was definitely a case of “rattling his cage” – as Earnhardt famously did to Terry Labonte at Bristol in 1999 – even if he didn’t describe it as such. Yet aggression isn’t the word you would use to describe Newman’s season on the whole.
So it’s that juxtaposition that leaves Newman – a driver who won eight races in 2003 yet finished sixth in the points to a one-win Matt Kenseth, a season that served as the catalyst for the Chase in the first place – now standing at the precipice of a title, on the strength of a winless season.
And in doing so, he’d deliver Childress his first title since Earnhardt won his seventh in 1994. Earnhardt came close to an eighth in 2000; Harvick came close on several occasions but never bettered third in the points.
Childress, ironically, actually has a shot to win his second straight NASCAR driver’s championship with a winless driver. Grandson Austin Dillon achieved the feat in the Nationwide Series a year ago, which marked the first time in any of NASCAR’s three top divisions (Sprint Cup, Nationwide, Camping World Truck Series) such a result had occurred.
Not that Joey Logano and Denny Hamlin aren’t intriguing storylines, or potential champions, but to see one of NASCAR’s legendary owners have this driver be the guy with a shot to end a 20-year drought, and have to beat the guy who came close to ending it any of the last 13 years for RCR is definitely going to be fun to watch.