Ryan Newman was walking, or rather driving, the proverbial fine line at a high rate of speed during the final laps of Sunday's Lenox Industrial Tools 301 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.
As the race leader, he stood poised to boost his position for the entire season into another stratosphere, virtually locking himself into one of the 12 spots for the upcoming Chase that determines NASCAR's Cup champion. As a driver who knew he was ever so close to running out of gas, he was just as close to throwing his season into a serious state of uncertainty.
He won, but he could have lost. And had he lost the fuel-mileage gambit and finished who-knows-where in Sunday's race, he would have placed himself in a precarious position indeed in regards to making the Chase.
Asked afterward how nervous he was about running out of fuel during those closing circuits of the 301-lap event, Newman smiled and replied: "I only got nervous when [crew chief Tony Gibson] told me we were eight laps short. Then he told me 15 laps later -- after several yellow flags -- that we were still eight laps short. I was thinking to myself, 'Well, we shouldn't be.'"
In another twist, had Newman run out, it would have been teammate/car owner Tony Stewart who claimed the victory. Instead, Newman didn't and the pair finished 1-2 for the first time in the three-year history of Stewart-Haas Racing.
"It was a perfect day for the organization, for sure," said Stewart, who for once didn't mind finishing second.
Newman and Stewart entered Sunday's event sitting ninth and 11th, respectively, in the point standings. Neither had posted a race victory this season.
That made participating in the Chase seem light years from a lock for either of them, considering the top 10 drivers in the points get in, plus two wild cards who own the most race wins and sit between 11th and 20th in the points standings. Both drivers from Stewart-Haas Racing were stumbling along right on the edge, with the very real risk being that their 2011 seasons could slip down the wrong side to oblivion.
Stewart, wearing his owner's hat, sensed it weeks ago when he made a difficult change in the upper management of the company and authorized the release of Bobby Hutchens, the competition director who had been with SHR since Stewart entered the ownership realm in 2008. Stewart said Sunday that Hutchens still hasn't been replaced, although the search for a new competition director has never ceased and will continue until the right person is found.
Sunday's win -- indeed, the entire weekend that also included the pair qualifying 1-2 on Friday -- went a long way to helping both Stewart and Newman believe the race organization is now headed solidly in the right direction.
"It's huge," Stewart said. "It's no secret we've been struggling this year. But it really shows me the depth of the people we've got in our organization. It's been one of the weirdest years as far as just weird things and bad luck happening to both of us.
"Our guys at our shop just keep plugging away. They keep working; they keep their chins up. That's probably what I'm most proud of. It's easy when things are going right. But when times are tough and then you have a day like [Sunday], you see how your organization battles."
All that they can be
Stewart still sits just on the wrong side of the top 10 in points, but only because he would lose the tie-breaker to Denny Hamlin -- who has one win to Stewart's none. Otherwise, Stewart's second-place finish Sunday pulled him into a points tie with Hamlin.
Newman, who gained one spot in the standings to move to eighth but more importantly notched one in the win column, is in much better shape.
Newman sensed that Sunday's win may have been one of the biggest of his 10-year career as a full-time Cup driver. Not only in the sense of what it meant toward qualifying him for the Chase, but because it was the first time he's won in a car sponsored by the U.S. Army.
"That was a goal we had way before this season ever started -- for the soldiers, our sponsors, our team, our organization," Newman said. "The timing of it is perfect from a points standpoint, from a wild-card standpoint with respect to the points. ... A lot of positives came out of it."
Gibson said it validated the hard work being put in, especially of late, at the Stewart-Haas shop and showed that perhaps his driver and car owner not only can now get into the Chase, but perhaps truly compete for a championship during it.
"I think we started the season out really good," Gibson said. "Then I think we got kind of complacent. We had this same race car at Martinsville [on April 3]. I think that was our race to lose ...
"And we lost it," Newman interrupted.
"Yes, we lost it," Gibson continued. "And we kind of stumbled after that a little bit. But we have a good race team. We have a great driver. We have great sponsors. We know how good we can be. We had to get our head straight and get there."
On Sunday, their heads were straight and they certainly proved to be all that they could be in getting the No. 39 U.S. Army Chevrolet to Victory Lane. It made Stewart the owner beam with pride.
"That's to me what shows the character of what Stewart Haas Racing is about, what our people are like," Stewart said. "That's probably what I'm most proud of in the last two and a half years -- how we've come from the first half of the this season to a weekend like this weekend."
Had there been a late caution to produce a green-white-checkered finish or if Newman hadn't been able to conserve his fuel expertly, the outcome would have been different. And also, perhaps, the mood at Stewart-Haas Racing would not be as bright.
"Usually those things that come and squash us didn't happen [Sunday]," Newman said. "Maybe it's just a change of luck for us from that standpoint."
And maybe, just maybe, it will prove to be more moving forward.