Credit the relentless fighting spirit of Ryan Newman and the No. 39 U.S. Army Medicine Chevrolet team for Stewart-Haas Racing (SHR) as they positioned themselves for a much-needed top-10 finish in the AdvoCare 500 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race Sunday night at Atlanta Motor Speedway.
The team diligently waged a night-long battle to overcome stubborn handling issues on the lightning-fast, 1.54-mile oval that’s particularly harsh on tire wear. That refuse-to-accept-defeat attitude by the No. 39 U.S. Army Medicine team had Newman running 16th in the waning stages of the next-to-last race before the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup commences. Then the unthinkable happened.
Newman was caught in an accident not of his own making on a lap-270 restart, leaving the No. 39 Chevrolet damaged beyond repair and Newman with a 35th-place finish that dropped him 49 points behind the 12th-place and final wild-card spot for the Chase.
“I didn’t see much – all I know we ran out of room on the restart there,” Newman said of the fateful incident that involved the cars of Jimmie Johnson and Sam Hornish Jr., making contact in front of him. “It wasn’t my fault, but it was just racing. It’s unfortunate for our U.S. Army Medicine Chevrolet. We caught two bad breaks just prior to that trying to get back on the lead lap. It was just unfortunate that we were in that position there because we raced our way from 13th, a lap down, all the way up to eighth and back on the lead lap.
“We’ve got one chore to do with the U.S. Army team, and that is to go into Richmond and get the win. We’ve done it before, and we can do it again. In the big picture, tonight’s result hurt. But the U.S. Army Soldiers we represent are known for their refusal to accept defeat, and that is precisely what motivates this race team to employ the type of mental toughness, focus and determination it does on and off the racetrack. This result tonight hurt us relative to the Chase, yes, but the battle is certainly not over. Our mission is clear.”
Success in the all-important mission for the U.S. Army Medicine team at Atlanta was taking shape just before the lap-270 accident. From his 17th starting position, Newman and his team had battled a predominantly loose condition from the drop of the green flag. But they managed to stay within striking distance of the top-10 throughout the opening two-thirds of the 500-mile race with diligent pit work and handling adjustments that improved the racecar in slight but steady increments.
Air-pressure and wedge adjustments on the opening stop under caution on lap 40 and the second stop under green on lap 83 enabled Newman to stay safely inside the top-20. He momentarily fell a lap down to the leaders on lap 110 while the race was in the midst of an 88-lap green-flag run. But the U.S. Army Medicine team got him back onto the lead lap, in 15th place, during another round of green-flag stops on lap 134. From there, Newman drove his way into the top-10, running as high as eighth when he came in for another green-flag stop on lap 169.
While Newman was running 12th and was the next-to-last car on the lead lap, crew chief Tony Gibson decided to take his “biggest swing” at fine-tuning the No. 39 Chevy’s handling issues. Newman pitted on lap 208 for major left- and right-rear tire-pressure adjustments, as well as track-bar and wedge adjustments. He resumed in 13th. Late in that run, he again found himself fighting to stay on the lead lap and did a stellar job of holding off leader Kevin Harvick for several laps before Harvick finally got by on lap 238. Still, Newman was able to stay at or near the front of the group of cars one lap down and reported that the U.S. Army Chevrolet was running at its best for the night during a pit stop just six laps before the fateful incident.
Newman’s teammate, Tony Stewart, driver of the No. 14 Office Depot/Mobil 1 Chevrolet, led the SHR contingent Sunday night by finishing 22nd after starting from the pole.
SHR driver Danica Patrick, who is driving the No. 10 GoDaddy.com Chevrolet for Tommy Baldwin Racing via a collaborative agreement with SHR, finished 29th. Atlanta marked Patrick’s fifth career Sprint Cup start and her first at Atlanta.
Denny Hamlin won the AdvoCare 500 to score his 21st career Sprint Cup victory, his series-leading fourth of the season and his first at Atlanta. It was Hamlin’s second consecutive victory, as he won last week at Bristol (Tenn.) Motor Speedway.
Jeff Gordon finished .378 of a second behind Hamlin in the runner-up spot, while Brad Keselowski, Martin Truex Jr. and Harvick rounded out the top-five. Kyle Busch, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Paul Menard, Matt Kenseth and Mark Martin comprised the remainder of the top-10.
There were six caution periods for 31 laps, with 11 drivers failing to finish the 327-lap race, which was extended two laps beyond its scheduled distance by a green-white-checkered finish.
With round 25 of 36 complete, Stewart continues to lead the SHR duo in the championship point standings. He remained 10th and has 769 points, 110 back of series leader Greg Biffle and 18 points ahead of 11th-place Kasey Kahne. Newman fell two positions to 17th and has 697 points, 182 behind Biffle and 72 behind 10th-place Stewart.
Only the top-10 in points are locked into the 12-driver, 10-race Chase. Positions 11 and 12 in the Chase are wild cards, awarded to the two drivers between 11th and 20th in points with the most wins. In the event of multiple drivers having the same number of wins, a driver’s point standing serves as the tiebreaker.
Kahne holds the 11th-place wild-card spot thanks to his two victories, the most of any driver outside the top-10. Busch remained in the 12th-place wild-card spot by virtue of his victory April 28 at Richmond (Va.) International Raceway, combined with his 12th position in the point standings, which is higher than his fellow single-race winners in the top-20 in points – Gordon, Marcos Ambrose, Newman and Joey Logano.
The next event on the Sprint Cup schedule is the Federated Auto Parts 400 on Saturday, Sept. 8 in the series’ return to Richmond. The race starts at 7:30 p.m. EDT, with live coverage provided by ABC beginning with its pre-race show at 7 p.m.