The NASCAR circuit returns to Phoenix Raceway this weekend for the second-to-last race of the 2017 season. Ryan Newman and the No. 31 team are returning to the desert with confidence on their side after scoring the win at the one-mile track earlier this year.
In March, Newman earned the dramatic victory for Richard Childress Racing and the No. 31 team, while snapping a winless streak for both himself and RCR. A late caution allowed Newman and the team to make a contrary decision, be aggressive, stay out on the track and try to win the race. The strong late-race restart in NASCAR overtime allowed Newman to secure a playoff spot in just the fourth race of the season.
Here are four things we learned from Newman’s March 2017 victory at Phoenix Raceway:
The relationship between the driver and crew chief is paramount
Newman’s win came about in large part due to a call by crew chief Luke Lambert not to pit during the final caution of the race.
More importantly, it was Newman’s trust in Lambert’s decision that put him in a position to win.
“My thought was that four tires was definitely not the way to go and we should take two tires if anything,” said Newman. “Luke said no tires and I was good with it. I knew what he was thinking. I’ve been there before. I’ve watched it win races and I’ve watched it lose races. It could have gone either way with a different restart.”
Newman and Lambert are in their fourth full-time season working together as driver and crew chief, and their relationship extends beyond the race track. Their families vacation together and their children are roughly the same age. Newman and Lambert are antique car aficionados and enjoy the outdoors.
Their relationship away from the track allows them to succeed on the track.
Securing a NASCAR Playoff spot early in the season is crucial
In racing, taking calculated chances can be the difference between winning and losing. Newman’s victory in the fourth race of the season secured him a spot in the NASCAR Playoffs with 22 regular season races remaining. The flexibility to try different strategies, setups and chances were at the team’s disposal.
“It takes a lot more pressure off your team in, for example, a fuel-mileage race,” said Newman. “There are definitely things that we tried that we wouldn’t have if we didn’t win that race in Phoenix.”
Winning is contagious
Two months later, Newman’s teammate Austin Dillon found Victory Lane at the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway. Dillon made mention of Newman’s victory in Phoenix in his post-race press conference.
“I’m not going to lie, our guys were jealous to see the No. 31 team win earlier this season,” Dillon said after winning his first Cup Series race on May 29. “It motivated us to get to this point. Our race team was hungry for a win.”
Trusting the analytics and race strategy pays dividends
Behind the scenes during the last caution, RCR’s engineers were putting together a plan for the final pit stop in about 90 seconds. Should Newman pit for fresh tires? Should he stay out and assume the lead, but risk being passed on the restart? It’s a big decision to make in a short period of time. But Lambert, along with several RCR engineers, used the data and analytics in front of them to make the most informed decision. Months of preparation went into making a decision that occurred in 90 seconds. The data available told the team to stay out and not come to pit road. Lambert was confident about his decision when he arrived to it.
“I’ve always said that confidence is more powerful than ability,” said Newman. “If you have the confidence, you can go out there and achieve anything.”