By Rick Minter
Ryan Newman returns to Martinsville Speedway as the defending winner of this weekend’s STP 500. Last year’s triumph, his first career Martinsville victory, came in dramatic fashion and has been a part of NASCAR’s highlight footage for the past 12 months.
Last spring, team owner Rick Hendrick was poised to get his 200th win at Martinsville, where he got his first victory back in the spring of 1984 with Geoff Bodine driving. Martinsville also is where Hendrick attended races as a youngster, and where one of his team’s planes crashed, killing 10 people, including Hendrick’s son, brother, two nieces and members of his inner circle at Hendrick Motorsports.
For much of last year’s race it looked as if either Jeff Gordon or Jimmie Johnson, both Hendrick drivers, would win the race. But with two of the scheduled 500 laps left to run, and Gordon and Johnson running 1-2, the caution flag flew for the stalled car of David Reutimann.
That’s when the situation began to turn in Newman’s favor.
He’d struggled early in the race, even going a lap down at one point. But he and his crew, then led by crew chief Tony Gibson, worked on his car and improved its handling.
“It was way off at first, we got it better, and once we got our lap back, we were really good,” Newman said. “We drove up through a lot of guys. We weren’t a winning car. The Hendrick guys were the winning cars.”
But it’s never over until the checkered
flag falls, and on Lap 504, with the race already past its scheduled distance, the field was set to try up to three green-white-checkered-flag runs to the finish.
Newman lined up fifth, behind Clint Bowyer, with Gordon and Johnson on the front row.
“I went to go past [Bowyer] and he blocked me,” Newman said, explaining that he bumped into Bowyer at that point. “When I did, I gave him enough momentum to be able to shoot down underneath [Gordon and Johnson].”
But in the process, Bowyer ran into the concrete curb on the inside of the race track and bounced up into the leaders, causing a crash.
“If [Bowyer] hadn’t clipped the curb, he probably would have won,” Newman said.
Instead, Newman’s No. 39 Chevrolet shot into the lead as the caution flag flew yet again, setting up another restart on Lap 514.
Newman said his goal on that start was to try to prevent another situation in which the leader lost a chance for victory. On the start, he had the inside, with A.J. Allmendinger on the outside and Dale Earnhardt Jr. in third, the same position Bowyer was in on the previous restart.
“My biggest goal was to keep Junior from going three wide because he was restarting third, which would have put me in the middle, which obviously didn’t work for the last group,” Newman said. “I knew if I could keep [Allmendinger] on the outside of me, in a lap and a half or two laps, no matter how good his car was, the inside line is better. After about a lap I held him to the outside, and we drove away.”
From then on, his goal was to keep Allmendinger from making a desperate bid for the win and wrecking them both.
“I wanted to make sure he didn’t try to banzai me,” Newman said. “For him, a second-place finish was a really good day for his team, and for us, a win was what we were there for.”
Finally, on Lap 515, the checkered flag flew, with Newman in control of the race.
After six top-five finishes, including a second-place run in 2007, he finally collected one of the track’s signature grandfather clock trophies.
“It was just good circumstances,” Newman said of the turn of events that resulted in his 16th career Sprint Cup victory. “I think it made for a great race.”