So when Newman finally made back it to Victory
Lane, a surprising triumph in the desert to end a 77-race Sprint Cup
winless drought and get his first win driving for Tony Stewart, it was
that much more satisfying.
“It was tough last year, I’m not going to kid
you, when I come to a new organization and it’s the same organization
for Tony Stewart and he won all those races,” Newman said. “We knew what
we needed to do to make our team better. And I feel that we’ve done
that. We proved that.”
A late caution flag Saturday night was the only
thing that kept Kyle Busch from a weekend sweep at Phoenix
International Raceway. That also provided the opening for Newman, who
beat Jeff Gordon in a two-lap shootout to win for the first time since
the 2008 Daytona 500, and only the second time in five seasons.
“This is the most emotional victory I’ve ever
had in my entire career just because it’s been so long,” Newman said
during the postrace celebration, where Stewart was one of the first
people to congratulate him.
With three laps left, Busch had a two-second
lead over Sprint Cup points leader Jimmie Johnson, who had won four of
the previous five races at the oddly shaped mile track. But Scott Riggs,
in his first Cup race this season, blew a front right tire and brought
out a caution to send everybody scrambling to the pits before another
Johnson and Busch both took four tires and
exited behind six cars that changed only right-side tires. Gordon won
the race off pit road ahead of Newman and defending race champion Mark
But when Gordon spun his tires on the restart,
Newman shot ahead on the inside lane and stayed in front. Gordon was
among those who congratulated Newman after the race.
“It’s been a long time since he’s won, and I
know that meant a lot to him and that team,” Gordon said. “He told me it
was a great restart. And he said, ‘Yeah, I finally got a good one.’ “
After beginning his Cup career with Roger
Penske, a 7 1/2-season span front-loaded with success, Newman got into
the No. 39 car for the new Stewart-Haas team last year. He had 15 top-10
finishes and made the Chase for the upstart team, but didn’t win a
That finally changed Saturday night.
“The emotional part is when I first started in
the series, it just came easy,” Newman said. “I was with a great team,
had a great crew chief, great pit stops. All those things just kind of
came easy to me.”
Newman had two top-10 finishes and a pole when
he drove seven races for Penske in 2001.
Then in his first full season, Newman set a
rookie record with 22 top-10 finishes, finished sixth in points and
topped Johnson for 2002 rookie of the year honors. He led the series in
wins (eight) and poles (11) in 2003, then solidified his qualifying
nickname of “Rocketman” with the most poles in each of the next two
But Newman won only twice in 2004 and once in
2005. Then he waited three more years before his next — and last —
victory for Penske.
“As it got toward 2005, I got to struggling a
little bit. I got a win here or there, but it was not dominant like we
were back in 2002 and 2003,” Newman said. “And to come to this new
organization and achieve the things that we did was great last year.
But, as I said all year long, I wanted to get that first victory for our
team and for No. 39.”
Newman moved up six spots to 16th in points
after his second consecutive top-five finish that continued an upward
trend. After starting the season with an accident at Daytona and engine
problems at California to finish 34th and 36th, he has improved each
race since — 18th, 17th, 16th, fourth and now first.
“It was a long time coming for me personally,
77 races,” Newman said. “But to see Tony Stewart win so many races last
year and be so close but not get that victory, this is really awesome
for us and our team.”
Newman led only two laps before the final two.
That was during a caution only 21 laps into what became a 378-lap race —
instead of the scheduled 375, already 63 more than last spring.
Johnson finished third and increased his
series points lead — from 14 to 36 over Matt Kenseth. Greg Biffle
dropped from second to third in points after finishing 22nd Saturday
night, the first time this season he wasn’t in the top 10.
“I was really happy to see where we came out,”
Johnson said. “I actually made the call for four tires. … I was
excited to see the caution. It gave me the opportunity to race for the
win and leave with the points stretched out a little bit.”
Denny Hamlin, racing only 10 days after
surgery to repair the torn ACL in his left knee, finished 30th, two laps
off the pace. He had moved up from his starting spot of 26th to 13th
before an extended stop 135 laps into the race to repair damage from
being hit and to address an electrical problem.
“We had a lot more issues than my leg today.
We had a sub-par car and we just killed ourselves trying to change,”
Hamlin said. “Just fought all day and it was just a miserable