Chase racing means never having to say you’re sorry

AVONDALE, AZ - NOVEMBER 08:  Ryan Newman, driver of the #31 Caterpillar Chevrolet, practices for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Quicken Loans 500 at Phoenix International Raceway on November 8, 2014 in Avondale, Arizona.  (Photo by Todd Warshaw/Getty Images)

AVONDALE, AZ – NOVEMBER 08: Ryan Newman, driver of the #31 Caterpillar Chevrolet, practices for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Quicken Loans 500 at Phoenix International Raceway on November 8, 2014 in Avondale, Arizona. (Photo by Todd Warshaw/Getty Images)

Ryan Newman has no reason to apologize.

Sure, Newman dive-bombed Sunoco Rookie of the Year front-runner Kyle Larson on the final lap of Sunday’s Quicken Loans Race for Heroes 500 at Phoenix International Raceway, but there were extenuating circumstances.

For Newman, that one move, made in the final two corners of the final lap of the final race in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup’s Eliminator Round, defined an entire season.

And the hands that held the steering wheel of the No. 31 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet also held the fate of Jeff Gordon.

It was a case of cosmic balance. Newman’s aggressive pass of Larson in Turn 3, where Newman steered his car to the apron, hit the gas and used Larson’s No. 42 Chevrolet as a cushion, earned an 11th-place finish—just enough to advance to Sunday’s one-race Championship Round of the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup at Homestead-Miami Speedway (3 p.m. ET on ESPN).

Newman’s gain was Gordon’s loss, as the driver of the No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet, a sentimental favorite to win a long-awaited fifth title, won’t get the chance this year. Newman’s pass of Larson was worth one point in the Chase standings, and that one point edge cut Gordon out of the Chase like a cruel scalpel.

For the final 70 laps, the suspense was riveting. Gordon ran comfortably in second place, unable to challenge runaway winner Kevin Harvick. Newman rode on the cusp of elimination and was running 14th — and out of the money — when NASCAR called the track-record-tying 11th caution for debris on the frontstretch.

At that point, Newman’s crew chief, Luke Lambert, made what proved to be the pivotal call of the race. Lambert opted to forego a pit stop under the yellow, and Newman gained nine positions by staying out. He lined up fifth for the restart on Lap 293.

But Newman’s car wasn’t good on restarts, and before the next caution flag waved on Lap 296, Newman had dropped back to ninth. Soon after the race restarted with 12 laps left, Newman lost positions to Dale Earnhardt Jr., Marcos Ambrose and Larson.

At that point, the No. 31 was running 12th and again out of the money. And at that point, Lambert began exhorting his driver, saying repeatedly on the radio, “One more spot.”

Newman got that spot on the last lap, diving into Turn 3 and door-slamming Larson’s Chevrolet. The impact knocked Larson into the Turn 4 wall, but Larson still managed to cross the finish line in 14th.

Newman said later that he didn’t like to race that way, but there was no reason for misgivings. Nor was there any need for Newman to recall the 2013 NASCAR Camping World Truck Series race on the half-mile dirt track at Eldora Speedway, where Larson “used me up,” as Newman put it, on a succession of restarts.

Sunday’s race was not about evening a score. It was about doing what was necessary—whatever was necessary—to survive and advance under a Chase system in which an entire season can be distilled into one bold, aggressive move.

No apologies necessary. And no regrets warranted.

As the season finale approaches, and Newman, Harvick, Denny Hamlin and Joey Logano prepare to race for the series championship, Newman will field countless questions about his status as the only eligible driver without a victory this season.

It’s entirely possible that Newman could post the highest finish among the four drivers at Homestead and claim the title without winning the race. After all, Newman already has defied conventional wisdom by advancing to the Championship Round.

But if he does bring Richard Childress Racing its first championship since the late Dale Earnhardt last won in 1994, let’s hope Newman confines his emotions to celebration.

Because there won’t be any reason to apologize for that either.

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