If one thing was learned from the finish of Saturday night’s Subway Fresh Fit 600 at the Phoenix International Raceway, it was how a team wins a Sprint Cup Series race these days has changed dramatically. Kyle Busch led 113 laps, Jimmie Johnson led 113 laps and Juan Pablo Montoya led 104 laps, yet none of them celebrated in victory lane. Ryan Newman led only four laps on the night, took two tires in the end and was able to break a 77-race winless streak.
As the laps clicked away, it appeared Busch was cruising to an easy victory over Johnson and the rest of the field. With just two laps to go, Scott Riggs smacked the outside wall and brought out the final caution of the night. The comfortable lead Busch enjoyed was gone and the race was open for anyone’s taking as the field headed for pit road in preparation for the green-white-checkered finish. Three cars had dominated the race on Saturday, but what it came down to was pit strategy and late-race guts – for the third race in a row.

When the caution flew that final time, everyone on the lead lap knew the race was up for grabs. Busch and Johnson opted for four tires, as Jeff Gordon, Newman and others took just two. With the four-tire call, Johnson beat Busch off pit road to restart seventh as the No. 18 lined up eighth for the GWC finish.

Taking the green flag, Gordon spun his tires on the outside line and Newman drove the No. 39 Tornados Chevrolet hard into the first turn to take the lead. As Johnson and Busch attempted to dice through traffic trying to get back to the front, Newman pulled away from Gordon. The defending champ was able to make his way to third by the time the checkered flag fell, but Busch was not as lucky as he finished where he restarted – eighth.

In the last three races – Bristol, Martinsville and now Phoenix – the race has come down to late-race cautions, GWC finishes and tough calls on pit road.

In Bristol, a four tire call by Chad Knaus and a poor restart by Matt Kenseth (on two tires) allowed Jimmie Johnson to score his first win at the track. Two weeks ago in Martinsville another late-race caution changed the complexion of the race. Virginia-native Denny Hamlin dominated the race, but on the GWC restart found himself behind cars on two tires. Determined to win his final race before ACL surgery, Hamlin drove his way to the front and made four tires work.

Busch and Johnson hoped the same would be true Saturday night in Phoenix – unfortunately for them it did not happen.

“I actually made the call for four tires,” Johnson said. “It seems like lately four tires work in a lot of races in the closing miles. I was hoping for one caution. I felt like if there was one caution that would bunch things up I’d had a shot at it. I restarted seventh and with another lap or two, we would have been there.”

“Four tires were definitely the call to go fast, but enough people took two that it just messed everything up,” Busch’s crew chief Dave Rogers said. “We started on the outside of the 48 (Jimmie Johnson), which we thought was going to be the preferred line, but the outside line didn’t go.  The 48 advanced forward and we got caught behind traffic.  Seems like it’s our luck this year.”

Newman understood if he wanted to beat the dominant cars on the day the No. 39 crew had to take a chance with two tires. Following the race, Newman explained crew chief Tony Gibson wanted to take four tires, but he made the call for two.

“It’s racing all the way up until the checkered flag falls. You never know what happens,” Newman said. “That’s why fans love the sport and the strategy and the drama and what’s going to happen and how teams play it out.  Four tires, two tires, no tires.  I’m surprised that there wasn’t a guy that went out there with no tires just to see.  There was 24 cars in the lead lap, it’s like why wouldn’t you?  Some guys just don’t take that risk, and I was glad that they didn’t tonight.”

With the finishes we’ve seen in the last three sprint Cup Series races, it is clear the GWC finishes and double-file restarts have changed the name of the game. Dominant cars never have an assurance at victory, but with the new rules in place for the 2010 season it seems when the caution flies late in a race anyone on the lead lap can jump into contention.

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