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Ryan Newman bolsters Chase chances

7/17/2011 - NASCAR

LOUDON, N.H. -- Ryan Newman knew it was "go" time. He said Friday his team "was vulnerable."

He knew in this new wild-card system, going winless was not a good option if he hoped to make the Chase.

Tony Stewart, his team owner and driving partner, knew it, too. But knowing what you need to do and actually doing it often is two different things.

Not this time.

Newman earned his first victory of the season Sunday on the 1-mile oval at New Hampshire Motor Speedway and Stewart finished right behind him for the first 1-2 finish at Stewart-Haas Racing.

"We did what we had to do," Newman said. "It puts us in a lot better position. The win is a great bonus. We knew we were capable of it. This is big. And I'm proud we came home 1-2, just like we started."

Newman started on the pole and Stewart was next to him on the front row.

"This was a perfect weekend," Stewart said. "We just needed one day where we didn't have something stupid go wrong, and we got that today."

Newman is the 13th different driver to win in the 19 Sprint Cup races this season. That one statistic means more now than it ever has.

For the first time, the final two spots of the 12-driver Chase are determined by victories for drivers ranked between 11th and 20th. Obviously, if 13 drivers already have won, at least one driver with a victory isn't going to make the playoff.

Actually, it's three at the moment -- Brad Keselowski, Trevor Bayne and Regan Smith.

Bayne, who won the Daytona 500, isn't eligible because he's running for the Nationwide championship. Smith, who won at Darlington, probably is too far behind to get there with seven races remaining before the Chase. He's 27th, 90 points behind 20th.

And Keselowski's chances became a little tougher Sunday after he blew a tire and finished 35th. He started the race three points outside of 20th but left New Hampshire 25 points back of the needed 20th spot.

And the new wild-card system means it all matters. A year ago, almost no one would care about Keselowski's finish Sunday in the grand scheme of things.

But now, he's still a contender. Even if Keselowski makes it back into the top 20, one victory may not be enough to earn a wild-card spot.

Now there are six drivers ahead of Keselowski who have one win. The good news? Five of them rank in the top 10 for now, including Newman in eighth.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. is the only driver in the top 10 without a victory. He's ninth in the standings, which means he's in big trouble.

The victory for Newman is a little like an insurance policy just in case he falls below 10th before the Chase. His boss, Stewart, is tied for 10th now with Denny Hamlin, 16 points behind Newman.

Now Stewart needs a win. He's going to Indy next -- his favorite track -- to try to get it.

For way too long, the NASCAR points system, even with the Chase, has been too much about points racing. Playing it safe to get a top-10 finish was more important than going all out to win.

This was a perfect weekend. We just needed one day where we didn't have something stupid go wrong, and we got that today.

-- Tony Stewart

But this race to the Chase is all about winning. Newman was going to win it Sunday or he was going to run out of fuel trying.

With eight laps to go, crew chief Tony Gibson told Newman they were two laps short. At that point, he just kept pushing.

"The only time I got nervous was when he told me [after his last pit stop] we were eight laps short," Newman said. "Then we had some yellow laps later and said we were still eight laps short. I thought, 'We shouldn't be.' I knew I was saving fuel."

The race could have ended in some irony. Stewart had the New Hampshire race won in the Chase opener last September but ran dry on the last turn as Clint Bowyer passed him for the victory.

Stewart could have been the beneficiary of a dry tank this time, but he didn't want to win it that way over his teammate.

"It definitely was a big risk," Stewart said of the No. 39 team's gamble. "I didn't know what his status was. I knew he was probably having to save a little bit.

"But honestly, running second and having Ryan win the race is much more gratifying to me than if he had run out of fuel and I had won."

It's been a tough time at SHR. Bobby Hutchens was released last month from his position as the SHR competition director. Stewart still is looking for a full-time replacement.

In the meantime, the organization has kept plugging along with one main goal: Get a win for each driver. Any team near the bubble of the Chase cut-off has to find a way to win.

"It's a different mentally this year," Newman said. "It gives everyone a little more courage to try to put themselves in position to get that win."

For NASCAR and its fans, that's a good thing.

Terry Blount is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His book, "The Blount Report: NASCAR's Most Overrated and Underrated Drivers, Cars, Teams, and Tracks," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores. Click here to order a copy. Blount can be reached at terry@blountspeak.com.