INDIANAPOLIS – For Ryan Newman, it was a day of racing on the edge. Tied with Daniel Suarez for the 16th and final position in NASCAR’s Cup Series playoffs, the Roush Fenway Racing driver knew Sunday’s Brickyard 400 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway was going to be a day where he couldn’t relax for a second.
Several times, when his Ford was being pushed down the straightaway by another car, Newman told NBC Sports that he was a correction or two from putting his No. 6 Ford into the fence.
“It was close calls all the time,” Newman said.
He started 22nd and had to race his way into contention if he was going to have any hope of making the field of 16 that begins the playoffs next week at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Newman would climb as high as sixth, then drop to as low as 13th. He dodged a major crash that ended Jimmie Johnson’s playoff chances in Turn 2 on Lap 105 and was able to forge ahead.
With Suarez far behind in Newman’s rear-view mirror in 11th place, Newman was able to clinch the playoff position when he crossed the famed “Yard of Bricks” in sixth place.
“I was pretty tickled,” Greg Newman, Ryan’s father, told NBC Sports. “I spotted for him in Turn 3 and at the end of the race my remark was, ‘We finally put the cat back in the hat.’
“I’m pretty proud of that.”
Now that the “cat is back in the hat,” Newman can finally relax, at least for the rest of Sunday night.
“It’s a huge relief,” Ryan Newman told NBC Sports. “It took 26 races to get here. You go back and look at what we did at Daytona to stay on the lead lap and finish that race with a flat left-front tire and the nose knocked off and everything else. Every point to this point made something and it made something out of our season because making the playoffs is a big deal.”
The long, hard struggle of the 26-race regular season where drivers have to fight and gouge for every point available, Newman’s team has improved throughout the season.
Late in the race, however, came a driver that nobody had considered in the championship discussion entering the race. It was Bubba Wallace in the No. 43 Chevrolet.
Wallace briefly raced his way to second place with the laps winding down, before Joey Logano took that position.
“I was pretty confident Kevin Harvick had a really good car and Kevin Harvick had a little left in the bag,” Newman said when asked about Wallace.
Kevin Harvick won his second Brickyard 400 by starting on the pole and leading the most laps (118) in the race. He also won the 2003 Brickyard 400 when he started on the pole.
Harvick was able to keep his cool by dominating the race. Further back, however, drivers like Newman were experiencing the heat of the moment.
“I don’t know if I kept my cool all day, but I kept it out of the fence when I very easily could have plowed the fence down,” Newman said. “In dirty air, I was as tight as anybody out there.
“It was a struggle a lot of times. At the end of the first stage, I had a lot of confidence. At the end of the second stage, I didn’t have a whole lot of confidence. We just stuck our nose to the grindstone.”
Newman was able to keep his nose clean; Suarez did not.
He brushed the wall on Lap 11 to bring out the first yellow flag of the race and his Ford sustained right-side damage.
His crew made repairs and Suarez gave it an effort, but 11th place was probably the most he could have gotten out of his damaged car.
“The 41 (Suarez) kind of got himself in a pickle there, and we were able to hold him off,” Newman said. “That was part of the race. The other part of the race was that we didn’t have a fast-enough race car to go up there and lead, and we got to be able to do that for these next three races.
“Guys were running out of talent. Guys have to control their race car. Just like usual here, you see stuff happen on pit road that you don’t see elsewhere because it’s pretty unique.
“What happens, happens,” Newman said. “When you put yourself in a bad position, sometimes bad things happen.”
“Oh, it’s huge, and my car was probably one of the worst in traffic for getting tight,” Newman said. “I was really struggling with that. I had to almost give up to let the guy in front of me get away so that I could actually run fast and try to keep the guy behind me. It’s a horrible way to try to race and be defensive, but it’s kind of what I had to do.”
Now that Newman and Roush Fenway Racing have made the playoff field, they want to prove they belong there.
Sunday’s race was simply a first step toward a greater goal.
“We’re continuing to go, today was another stepping stone,” Newman said to a group of reporters on pit road after the race. “No matter what everybody else does, we have three races to prove today is no spoof. A lot of guys ran out of talent.
“I saw a lot of guys losing control of their car all by themselves. We just have to take these next three races to the best of our abilities and move on.”
Newman believes his team has to improve its speed. More importantly, it has to get some checkered flags over the final 10 races.
“We have to win,” he said. “We really have to win. We don’t have any points. Some of these guys have 20 or 30 points on us and we have none. Winning, that’s the whole goal.
“We have to do everything we can, do everything possible, to keep progressing our team. We might get knocked out. We might prove come Homestead that we could have won it if we were in it.
“I just want to stay focused and do our thing.”
At the front of the field, greatness was on display in the No. 4 Ford driven by Harvick. He set a standard Newman wants to achieve.
“Making the playoffs for Roush Fenway Racing is good, but good is not good enough, we have to be great,” Newman said. “Harvick proved today what great is. He won the pole, led the most laps and won the race.
“I’ve been there. I want to get back to there.”