Ryan Newman seemed awfully confident for a guy who lost an engine in the final laps and finished 33rd in the first race of the first Chase for the Championship last weekend.
Newman knew there was no cause for alarm. He can read a schedule as well as anybody else.
Newman dominated the MBNA America 400 on Sunday, leading 325 laps, including the last 135, to refire not only his dominance at Dover International Speedway but his bid for his first Nextel Cup championship.
"I really enjoy this racetrack," Newman said in the understatement of the day. "I knew after the first hundred miles that we had a car that was capable of the top five for sure. After that it was just a matter of tuning on it here and there, freeing it up a little bit for late in the run."
Newman's 11th career win was of the same methodical, dominating ilk that made him a preseason title favorite; it was surprising that he needed a late-season hot streak to make the 10-driver playoffs. He still has a long climb, but it looks a lot more makeable now.
Just ask Mark Martin. The veteran won at Dover in the summer to launch his campaign for a playoff berth. He finished second Sunday, 8.149 seconds behind, to jump two spots to fifth in the driver standings (actually tied for fourth, but Jimmie Johnson wins the tiebreaker). But he was so far behind, it didn't feel like he was second.
Martin got his last real shot at the No. 12 Dodge when a caution on Lap 326 erased a nine-second lead. But Newman began setting blistering lap times again at the restart on Lap 335 and had Martin a full second behind in 10 laps.
"Man, that 12," Martin said. "I thought that last run, "I'll show you what I got,' and he showed us what he's got. He was just long gone."
The number of cars on the lead lap fell to eight when Newman passed ninth-place Dale Earnhardt Jr. on Lap 392. Newman opened a 7.2-second margin on Martin.
Newman's only concerns late were a possible lingering memory of the engine failure at New Hampshire last week, and his tires. Several drivers had tire ruptures, including one that sent Jeff Burton hard into the wall. When one of Newman's right fronts was seen to have come apart after a pit stop, crew chief Matt Borland decided to short pit instead of making the one stop necessary to finish the race. Newman pitted again under caution just eight laps later and was so far ahead he could nurse his equipment.
Newman's performance demonstrated the need for running consistently over the entirety of the 10-race Chase for the Championship. A complete, thorough win earned Newman a maximum 190 points, but he jumped just one spot in points to eighth, 107 behind new leader Jeff Gordon.
"We still gain a lot, especially with the 10 points for leading the most laps," Newman said. "We just do the best we possibly can. If we don't deserve it, we won't win it."
Newman couldn't parlay his big day into a big jump because eight playoff drivers finished in the top 10. Gordon was third.
"That's why they're in the top 10 in points," Gordon said. "I think what you see at this point in the season, everyone is in their groove. The guys in the top 10 should be the best going into these last 10 races."
Kurt Busch (fifth in the race) is one point behind Gordon in the standings as Earnhardt (ninth) dropped to third.
Newman said his team members did not need a motivational speech after the disappointment last week at Loudon. And he'd be surprised if they need to be brought down a peg heading to Talladega next week.
"The bottom line is when you can win like we did today, you don't need a pep talk," he said. "Everything takes care of itself. The guys were really pumped up going into the race today, and they're overpumped right now I'm sure. The bottom line is, we've got to forget about today right now and focus on next week and the coming weekend and preparing for Talladega.
"You almost can't take the time to enjoy the wins when you have the schedule we do and have to focus on so many kinds of racetracks and brake packages and downforce and drag and those types of things. If you spend time celebrating, you're not spending time working."
Maybe they could celebrate this one a little bit, though. They seem to have worked plenty hard on Dover already.
NEXTEL CUP POINTS LEADERS
Through 28 of 36 races. The top 10 are in the "Chase for the Championship" and are the only drivers eligible to win the title.
Driver Car Pts Back
J. Gordon Chevy 5,371 _
Kurt Busch Ford 5,370 1
Earnhardt Jr. Chevy 5,353 18
Johnson Chevy 5,314 57
Martin Ford 5,314 57
Sadler Ford 5,275 96
Kenseth Ford 5,272 99
Newman Dodge 5,264 107
Stewart Chevy 5,236 135
Mayfield Dodge 5,214 157
_ Standings are unofficial. NASCAR releases official standings today.
THE OLD WAY
Had the old points system been in effect, Jeff Gordon would still lead _ the difference is, he'd be 69 up on Dale Earnhardt Jr., not one up on Kurt Busch. Busch continues to be the biggest beneficiary of the points changes; he'd be fourth, 264 points behind Gordon. Jamie McMurray would have been ninth; he's the driver most likely to rue the new system.
WINNER'S AVERAGE SPEED: 119.067 mph.
TIME OF RACE: 3 hours, 21 minutes, 34 seconds.
MARGIN OF VICTORY: 8.149 seconds.
CAUTION FLAGS: 5 for 38 laps.
LEAD CHANGES: 13 among 7 drivers.
LAP LEADERS: Newman 1-32; Kenseth 33-48; Newman 49; Schrader 50; Kenseth 51-92; Newman 93-184; Busch 185-195; Newman 196-260; Martin 261-262; Earnhardt Jr. 263; J. Gordon 264; Busch 265; Newman 266-400.