Saturday night we saw how bad Ryan Newman wanted that win at Phoenix International Raceway. I think his face and emotions helped sum up how important that win was to him and his boss, Tony Stewart. It was as if it was a validation of the trust that Tony put in Ryan by choosing him to drive for Stewart-Haas Racing.
Remember that they both made the Chase for the Sprint Cup last year, their first together and that proved it was very solid call. For Newman to get that first win for his team, though, once again validates Stewart's call to put him behind the wheel.
It also showed the impact of late-race pit calls with NASCAR's new rules.
If you look over the past few weeks, there are a handful of crew chiefs that are showing they are getting it right the majority of the time late in these races. You have Steve Letarte (Jeff Gordon's crew chief), Tony Gibson (Newman), Chad Knaus (Jimmie Johnson) and Mike Ford (Denny Hamlin). Go back and look at the last few races at who was up front and who was in contention to win and you'll see the impact of these men.
With NASCAR going to the multiple green-white-checker finishes, it clearly has thrown in an unknown factor. There were times in the past, under the old system, where the ability to play defense was totally different. When you combine the new potential for extended racing with the double-file restarts, strategy is totally different. The days of lap-down cars racing on the inside on restarts are gone. The leader no longer has the benefit of basically using those rolling roadblocks to help him hold off folks.
Now the leader has guys equal, if not better, than he is beside him, behind him and basically all around him. So there are a ton of great drivers coming after that leader. Now it takes great calls to counterattack this kind of strategy.
You can have all the notes and all the information possible at your fingertips, but what we are seeing in these late-race calls by the crew chiefs is basically boiling down to a gut call. Sure, you obviously use the information you have access to that will help shape the direction you are going in, but sometimes the obvious way to go is not always the most obvious.
That takes you back to the crew chief's knowledge and what his gut is telling him will win the race. You also have to have a good understanding of where your driver fits into that equation.
You might even use the analogy of a game of checkers. In the beginning of the game, it is pretty straightforward what you need to do. When guys get crowned and can move in any direction, they become a totally different kind of opponent. So again, with these double-file restarts combined with multiple attempts to finish the race under green, your mode of defense is totally changed. Now you have to get offensively geared up to protect yourself.
To me, NASCAR racing today is much more intriguing and gut-wrenching than it has ever been when you are the crew chief sitting up there on top of that box. If you get it right, like Tony Gibson and Newman did the other night, it is very, very satisfying.
In the past, when you would win a fuel-mileage race, some folks would try to say you stole the race from someone else. I never believed that. To me it meant you had the same opportunity that I did, but you failed to take advantage of it and I ended up celebrating in Victory Lane. That's basically what we are back to today. If you are able to make the right call, it is so very gratifying.
Showing what's inside
I think Denny Hamlin, who won on a daring pit call the previous week at Martinsville, showed a lot of courage driving the entire Phoenix race after having knee surgery 10 days before. He practiced the car and started the race but then was faced with the tough decision of whether to get out of the car or not. Whether he did the right thing was arguable.
I do want to commend him though for pulling a John Wayne move of continuing to drive the car even after he got three laps down. He could have very easily gotten out and turned the car over to a relief driver to finish the race. He didn't and that showed me a lot of heart, determination and courage.
Hamlin has a lot of rehab to go through and it is not going to be enjoyable. I had the same surgery that Denny had, so I understand better than most what he is going through. So trust me when I tell you that Denny's rehab is not going to be a walk in the park. Now the team needs to rally around Denny and it needs to get itself back into the Chase come Richmond in September.
I love what all sports bring out in people. As Americans we love competitors. We love great stories and we love it when the right guy wins at the right time. This weekend we saw that in several different ways. You had Phil Mickelson winning the Masters. You had Ryan Newman with all the determination in the world get his first win for his new team. And you saw the courage of Denny Hamlin to run all 375 laps in Phoenix after just having a ACL surgery.