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What does Ryan Newman’s win mean for the rest of the field?
- Updated: March 21, 2017
By Aaron Bearden, Motorsports Editor
The Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series (MENCS) saw its first true surprise winner of 2017 at Phoenix Raceway when Ryan Newman stole the show with a gutsy late strategy.
The moment was one of the feel good moments of the young season, with Newman celebrating his first victory since his tenure with Stewart-Haas Racing, and Richard Childress Racing enjoying their first Cup Series win since a victory by Kevin Harvick at – where else – Phoenix before he left for – again, where else – Stewart-Haas Racing.
So Newman’s happy and RCR’s early speed finally paid off. That’s great for both parties, but what does it mean for the rest of the field?
1: One Less Playoff Spot
The most notable impact Newman’s surprise win had on the grid is the elimination of a precious playoff spot.
Perhaps lost in the shuffle of stage races and playoff points is that the actual effort to qualify for said playoffs remains largely unchanged.
16 drivers will make their way into the postseason this fall beginning at Chicagoland Raceway, and thanks to Newman’s win, one contender who might have otherwise made the field is bound to miss out.
Yes, it’s way too early to say that with certainty, but just look at the standings.
Newman entered Phoenix firmly on the early playoff bubble, and while the points associated with the victory elevated him to 11th in the series standings, he sits just 11 points ahead of 17th-place Aric Almirola, who would be the first one to miss the postseason as things stand.
Given the way last season went, it’s entirely possible that Newman could fade over the summer months, dropping outside of the top 16.
Which leaves us with one question – if that were to happen, who will Newman’s win hurt?
There are many options in the middle of the pack right now, with some more likely than others.
Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin and Jimmie Johnson all sit between 13th and 16th in the standings heading into this weekend’s race at Auto Club Speedway, but their track records prove that they’ll likely bounce back and earn victories as the season drags on.
Kyle Larson and Chase Elliott have both (arguably) exceeded expectation thus far as they sit in the top three in the standings, but their early cushion in the points and speed shown on the track indicate that they’ll likely stay afloat at the absolute worst, with multiple wins and a high playoff seed possible at best.
The ever-consistent Joey Logano’s not likely to drop, nor is 2014 MENCS champion Kevin Harvick.
So who does that leave?
First there’s Ryan Blaney, whose Wood Brothers Racing team has been one of the biggest surprises thus far, battling to the best position in the standings (sixth) they’ve managed in more than two decades.
Their performance (and Team Penske affiliation) provides hope that they can continue their streak, but it should be noted that a slightly worse early rise to 12th in 2016 led to just a 20th-place finish in the standings.
Veterans Jamie McMurray, Kasey Kahne and Clint Bowyer have enjoyed career renaissances thus far in the form of strong runs and top-15 performances in the standings – McMurray in eighth, Kahne ninth and Bowyer 14th – but fans and critics can be forgiven for being leery about their long-term prospects as well, given that Kahne’s missed the postseason for two-consecutive years, Bowyer’s only now returning to a relevant team and McMurray’s only just made the postseason in each of the past two seasons.
Trevor Bayne sits 12th in the standings, but his ceiling will rise only as high as Roush Fenway Racing’s equipment allows. In recent years, the team’s performance hasn’t quite been enough to secure a playoff bid.
On a similar notion, Aric Almirola’s Richard Petty Motorsports team has bounced back from a dismal 2016 season to sit 17th in the standings after four races. Whether they can they finally find the form to take the next step will determine whether they enter the playoffs on points or get desperate for a victory.
Others outside of the current playoff grid should also be wary. 2000 rookies Matt Kenseth (21st) and Dale Earnhardt, Jr. (23rd) have both struggled out of the gate. Erik Jones (18th) and Daniel Suarez (20th) tallied top 10s in Phoenix, but are bound to see the usual struggles of a rookie season.
RCR teammates Paul Menard (19th) and Austin Dillon (25th) could use a dose of Newman’s momentum, and other hopefuls such as Danica Patrick (29th) and JTG Daugherty Racing teammates Chris Buescher (31st) and AJ Allmendinger (32nd) may already have dug themselves into a hole too deep to crawl out of.
2: Potential for Increased Strategy
Newman’s No. 31 Chevrolet wasn’t the fastest machine in the grid on Sunday, though they were firmly inside of the top 10 with the laps winding down. Instead, it was a bold strategy call from crew chief Luke Lambert that won the day.
Now that one team has seen success, we may see similar calls moving forward.
Yes, decisions like Lambert’s on Sunday are largely situational. In fact, similar attempts to both Atlanta Motor Speedway and Las Vegas Motor Speedway largely ended in failure.
Still, as the year continues on and teams begin to become more desperate, moves like the No. 31 team’s could become more prevalent.
Whether teams are fighting for five playoff points or just a spot in the playoffs to begin with, differing late-race strategies will likely become a prominent sight over the coming weeks so long as legitimate opportunities to do so exist.
Why? Because the current model supports bold strategies nearly as much as any other.
Only the top 10 drivers in the standings will earn bonus playoff points based on their standing come Chicagoland. The rest of the field will have only stage and race wins to count on.
Given that, those that appear unlikely to make their way to the top 10 will have greater incentive to attempt different strategies for playoff points or a postseason bid, while those inside of the top 10 may be more apt to points race and minimize risk.
3: Big Mo(mentum)
Few teams needed momentum this season quite like RCR and RFR.
Thankfully, both organizations gained some in a big way in the Arizona desert.
Newman’s win gives RCR their first car guaranteed into the postseason before spring ever, given that no team within the organization won their way into the playoff under the former “Chase” format seen from 2014-16.
Now, for the first time in more than three years, RCR has a win to learn and grow from – and the momentum that comes with it.
With luck, Menard and Dillon can pick up on the early speed shown by their race-winning teammate.
Dillon looked fast before his day came to an unexpected end in Atlanta, but the North Carolinian has otherwise struggled. Meanwhile, Menard’s typically strong March has given way to mediocrity for the second-straight season, undoing a solid fifth-place performance in the season-opening Daytona 500 with a group of mid-pack finishes.
Both drivers need to pick up the pace – and soon – if they have any hope of racing their way into the playoffs, whether their aim is to earn a spot on points or a victory. A legitimate win from their teammate may provide the necessary combination to make the necessary improvements.
On an opposite note, Ricky Stenhouse, Jr., returned to relevancy in Arizona when he parlayed the same strategy that won Newman the race into a fourth-place finish.
The strategy elevated Stenhouse to 71 points, helping him soar up the championship standings into 22nd after nearly doubling his previous point total (38).
The two-time XFINITY Series champion is still far from where he likely hoped to be at this stage, and 39 points behind teammate Bayne in 12th, but the finish has at least afforded Stenhouse an opportunity to get back into the points battle and not depend solely on a victory.
Meanwhile, Bayne continues to search for the next step.
The 2011 Daytona 500 champion’s proven incredibly consistent thus far, with all four of his finishes coming inside of the top 20, but he’ll need to improve his current best finish of 10th (Daytona) if he has any hope of keeping his high placement in the standings.
RCR and RFR are both former powerhouses of the sport, with Cup Series championships to their name. If they want to add more titles to that legacy, a few more runs like Newman and Stenhouse managed Sunday could go a long way.