Trust and Teamwork Deliver the Win in Phoenix
Grainger Editorial Staff
It was a cloudless day in Phoenix, and six cars had already crashed out of the race in the desert heat. After nearly four hours behind the wheel, Ryan Newman was feeling the stress. “I was spent. I literally couldn't hold my head up. The sun was just cooking everything,” he recalls. “The race track, the cars, everything.”
But as he trailed the pace car through a late race caution, Newman was focused on getting a clean restart. “I was so hot that I had the chills, literally shivering,” he says. With only two laps remaining in the race, “I knew that my body was way hotter than it was supposed to be, health-wise. At that point, your mind has to kind of take over. You have to refocus.”
Starting With a Full Sponge
Heat had already caused some unexpected mechanical issues during the previous day’s practice. “It took a lot of work just to get the car on the racetrack in a configuration that could survive all of the laps,” crew chief Luke Lambert explains. NASCAR had introduced a new aerodynamics package, with a shorter spoiler and slimmed down splitter that generated less downforce. Less downforce meant the car had to brake harder going into the corners, and dangerous levels of excess heat built beneath the chassis.
After practice, the crew saw the car would need repairs in order to survive the full race. “We had to reconstruct our brake cooling and our rear gear cooling systems in very fast order,” Luke Lambert recalls. “That's something that we don't generally have to do on a race weekend, but harsh conditions at the track required it.”
Not all of the crew’s preparations were mechanical. The team knew that racing in the desert would be physically and mentally demanding. After his customary race day breakfast of milk and cookies, Ryan spent the morning downing bottles of water, completing the final stages of a hydration regime that he had begun days before. “I always try to start with a full sponge."
Positioning for the Win
When a crash sent the race into a caution with only a half-dozen laps remaining, Lambert decided to risk staying on the track. “Our car had really good long run speed, so we were the one team that had a shot at making it work by staying out. The best chance we had to win the race was to put our car out front and let Ryan fend them off.”
With the rest of the pack stopping in the pits for fresh tires, Ryan was able to move into the lead position for the restart. But improving his position carried a risk—on the final lap, he would have to fend off competitors running fresh tires.
It was a gamble, but Lambert was confident. “You have to be aggressive and not be afraid of taking risks,” he says. He knew he had Ryan’s trust. “We had a brief chat, and he didn't question my call, even though it seemed risky. That level of trust is why we were one of the only teams to stay out. Ryan didn't even bat an eye.”
Moving into the front row for the restart, Ryan had a shot at victory. “I got excited coming to the green, and I knew we had a chance,” he says. “On the restart, you really just have to focus on getting through the gearbox without spinning your tires. You just don't want to make a slip and give somebody else an opportunity.”
A Victory to Remember
When Ryan took the checkered flag, it marked his first win since 2014. For many crew members, the celebration in Phoenix would be their first.”It was an amazing feeling for everybody,” Ryan recalls, “because there were so many guys that hadn't been to victory lane.”
The early season win helped build the team’s confidence. After the victory, “we knew we could compete this year and make a run for the championship,” Luke says. “The team was responsible for making it happen, and being able to lead that group is very special. It’s something I'm very proud of. When you see everything align and it works out for you, it's really, really amazing.”
Newman has clinched a spot in the playoffs, but don’t expect him to play it safe. “The win actually gives us an opportunity to be more aggressive,” Luke says. “For us, as a race team, it's in our best interest to be aggressive heading into the playoffs.”