HOMESTEAD, Fla. — Ryan Newman is the underdog — minus the darling — of NASCAR’s final four, making a mockery of the revamped playoff format that was supposed to put a premium on winning.
He is the odd man in NASCAR’s finale in south Florida Sunday, the party crasher that few have embraced, trying to stick around for the confetti, the fireworks, and the champagne toast.
This interloper makes no apologies for working the system or for using a last-lap push to get just enough points to edge out popular four-time champ Jeff Gordon.
“I didn’t know Cinderella was a race car driver,” Newman said.
Newman hasn’t won a race since July 2013, but he has methodically piled up points in the No. 31 Chevrolet and escaped the danger that picked off heavy favorites in earlier Chase rounds to wind up on the cusp of his first title.
“The math was there,” said Newman, a structural engineering student at Purdue and the only college graduate in the field. “We didn’t need the wins.”
The beefy 36-year-old driver’s 2014 stats don’t look like those of a champion: no wins, four top fives, and just 41 laps led in 35 races. Newman hasn’t finished higher than third in any race since he won the Brickyard 400 last year.
He has made his run to the championship about as fun as calculus homework, posting four finishes of 11th or higher in the nine Chase races. While other title hopefuls and their teams rumbled in the pits, fought in the garage, or wrecked racing for the flag, Newman hummed along with little fanfare or expectation that he’d earn a berth in the final field.
Now he could become the championship face of NASCAR.
Newman knew he needed to finish in the top 11 last week to join Kevin Harvick, Joey Logano and Denny Hamlin as finalists. On the last lap at Phoenix International Raceway, he pushed Kyle Larson into the wall, giving Newman enough to take the last spot over Gordon — who had four wins this season — by one point.
This week, Newman called Larson — to explain his side, and perhaps, to nip any thoughts of retaliation.
“It’s a little upsetting he pushed me up to the wall, but I completely understand the situation he was in, and can’t fault him for being aggressive there,” Larson said.
Newman’s young daughter, Brooklyn, had one note for him after the race.
“The very first thing she says to me is, ‘Daddy, you hit the 2 and the 4 car,’ ” Newman said. “She was trying to say 42, but that was the first thing she said to me on Monday morning.”
“Daddy did what he had to do,” he said.
Newman was the quiet driver at Wednesday night’s championship news conference. Harvick needled Logano, and Hamlin politely answered questions. Newman just waited his turn.
When Harvick and Logano’s banter hit full throttle, Newman interrupted, “Can I go now?”
If Newman drives out of Miami a champion, NASCAR will have its own question to answer: Was the new Chase a success?
“This new format rewards winning,” NASCAR chairman Brian France said at the start of the season. “It elevates the importance of every race across the entire schedule. It ultimately rewards those drivers and teams who perform at the highest level when the championship is on the line.”
NASCAR came up with the Chase in the first place after Matt Kenseth won just one race in 2003 and was accused of sapping the season of excitement.
In the format introduced this year, NASCAR rewarded drivers who won during the 26-race regular season with a spot in the 16-car Chase field.
Newman slithered in as the No. 16 seed on points (only 13 drivers won races to clinch positions). A year after being squeezed out at Stewart-Haas Racing to make room for Harvick, Newman could become the first driver in NASCAR’s top series to win it all without taking a checkered flag.
“I’d love to win. I’d love to go out there and lead every lap and talk about how we saved the best for last,” Newman said. “But it doesn’t have to be.”
Even on Sunday, Newman doesn’t have to win (he has only one top-five finish in 12 career races at Homestead) to hoist the championship trophy. The top finisher among the finalists is crowned the champ.
Newman is an accomplished driver, with 17 career wins. He won a Daytona 500 driving for Roger Penske and at Indianapolis Motor Speedway driving for SHR.
He could win Childress a seventh championship, the first since Dale Earnhardt in 1994.
But Newman hasn’t been caught up in the sentimentally of winning for ol’ RC.
“I’m winning it for me.”
He has NASCAR fans gritting their teeth, hoping they don’t leave the finale agitated like Jerry Seinfeld as he slammed the door on his nemesis neighbor: