Sparta – Ryan Newman fought an ill-handling racecar and rallied from one lap down to score a hard-earned fourth-place finish in the inaugural NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race at Kentucky Speedway in Sparta. It was the fifth top-five finish of 2011 for the driver of the No. 39 Tornados Chevrolet Impala for Stewart-Haas Racing (SHR).
After starting 18th, Newman struggled with the balance of his racecar for much of the first half of the 267-lap race and went a lap down on lap 99. Unfazed, he and crew chief Tony Gibson continued to work on their car’s handling through a series of track bar, wedge and tire pressure adjustments. And thankfully, they caught a couple of breaks.
When a caution came out on lap 140, Newman stayed out on the 1.5-mile oval rather than pitting and gained his lap back. From there, he steadily made his way toward the front, and when another round of pit stops began under green at the lap-197 mark, he found himself in second place just before he was ready to pit. But just before he was to come to pit road, the caution came out on lap 201 for Jamie McMurray’s blown engine, allowing Newman to pit on lap 203 under yellow for four tires and fuel.
He restarted ninth when the green flag came out on lap 210 and remained in the top-10 as fuel strategy came into play. As teams began pitting, Newman climbed to as high as third before heading to pit road on lap 251, stopping for just three seconds so just enough fuel could be added to his machine to make it to the finish.
Just three laps after his stop, however, the caution came out again for debris left over from Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s cut tire, and when everything cycled through, Newman restarted in eighth on lap 260. He moved to seventh in one lap, but the caution came out one final time on lap 263 for Clint Bowyer’s accident in turn two.
When the race restarted on lap 265, Newman made his biggest move, rocketing from seventh to fourth in the final two laps.
“It was a good last restart,” Newman said. “We struggled today and got a lap down. The Tornados Chevrolet was a little off balance-wise, but Tony Gibson and the guys did a good job getting it back right. Then we got a really good break there when the No. 1 (McMurray) car blew up and got us back in a better (pit) cycle. We just had the right strategy from there on out. We had better tires and better fuel opportunities. I’m just proud of the last restart – I did what I had to do, kept it clean and it was a good points day for us, too.”
Newman’s SHR teammate, Tony Stewart, driver of the No. 14 Office Depot/Mobil 1 “Back-to-School” Chevrolet Impala, led one lap en route to a 12th-place finish.
Kyle Busch won the 400-mile race to score his 22nd career Sprint Cup victory and his third of the season.
David Reutimann finished .179 of a second behind Busch in the runner-up spot, while Jimmie Johnson, Newman and Carl Edwards rounded out the top-five. Matt Kenseth, Brad Keselowski, David Ragan, Kurt Busch and Jeff Gordon comprised the remainder of the top-10.
There were six caution periods for 32 laps, with nine drivers failing to finish the 267-lap race.
With round 18 of 36 complete, Newman leads the SHR duo in the championship point standings. He moved up one spot to ninth and now has 538 points, 86 markers back of new series leader Kyle Busch and 11 points ahead of 11th-place Stewart, who gained one position. Stewart has 527 points and is 97 points arrears Kyle Busch with a 30-point cushion over 13th-place Juan Pablo Montoya.
The next event on the Sprint Cup schedule is the July 17 Lenox Industrial Tools 301 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in Loudon. The race starts at 1 p.m. EDT with live coverage provided by TNT beginning with its pre-race show at noon.