From the start of Sunday's Big Machine Vodka 400 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Ryan Newman's Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series playoff chances were in jeopardy.
He entered the final Monster Energy Series regular-season race tied with Daniel Suarez for the final berth in the postseason, and qualifying didn't go as well as Newman had hoped. He was 22nd fastest in time trials, giving up two spots to Suarez at the outset.
But with astute pit calls by crew chief Scott Graves and a determined drive, Newman worked his way forward and ran consistently in the top 10.
Only one problem. By the time the field restarted after an eight-car wreck on Lap 105, Suarez had climbed from his 20th starting spot to fourth, and Newman's chances to race for a championship were in dire peril.
But after Suarez made an unscheduled pit stop on Lap 126 because of a vibration, Newman's prospects turned for the better. Suarez couldn't recover from the ill fortune, and Newman secured the final playoff spot with an eighth-place finish to Suarez's 11th.
"Well, we weren't by any means the fastest car," said Newman, who is in his first season with Roush Fenway Racing. "Our Acorns Ford was really tight in traffic. I'm sure a lot of guys were, but I think we were one of the worst. Stage points kind of cancel each other out, but just excellent strategy by Scott Graves, everybody at Roush Fenway.
"It's been a year of progress, a year of learning, a year of a lot of things. I'm more rookie this year than I've ever been, but an ice-cold Coke never tasted so good after these first 26 races."
To be a contender in the playoffs, Newman knows his No. 6 Ford Mustang team will have to improve its overall performance.
"I think we have a lot of work to do," Newman said. "We're by no means dominating led laps -- qualified 22nd, finished 8th. We've showed that we can progress throughout the race, but we've got to start qualifying in the top 10 to be able to finish in the top five, and then we'll prove that we're made of more than what we're showing."
BAD LUCK BITES SUAREZ, THE FIRST DRIVER OUTSIDE PLAYOFF GRID
Eleven laps into Sunday race, Suarez drifted too high in Turn 2 and hit the outside wall, but that wasn't what cost him a spot in the playoffs.
Suarez recovered quickly from the early incident and drove forward. He was fourth for a restart on Lap 112 of 160 and ahead of Ryan Newman in the battle for the final playoff spot.
Suarez's No. 41 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford, however, picked up a vibration, forcing him to pit road on Lap 126. Three laps later, a caution for Kyle Larson's wreck trapped Suarez a lap down.
Though Suarez returned to the lead lap as the beneficiary under the yellow, the vibration and the inopportune caution proved the telling blow. Suarez chased Newman over the closing laps but finished 11th to Newman's eighth and finished the regular season four points behind Newman.
"I made a little mistake there," Suarez said of the early brush with the wall. "I wasn't expecting how aero-loose the car got when I got behind the 24 (William Byron). The car actually was pretty good after that, though.
"The guys were able to fix it. It was mostly cosmetic. The guys were able to fix it, and the car was just as good as before. I feel like after that the day went smooth, other than getting caught in the pit road cycle on the last stop.
"That made us lose all our track position, and it was very difficult to overcome that. We fought hard. We made it all the way back to 11th, and I feel like if we had 15 more laps, I was going to get the 6 (Newman) but that's racing. It just wasn't meant to be."
SECOND STRAIGHT SINGLE-DIGIT FINISH USHERS CLINT BOWYER INTO PLAYOFFS
Clint Bowyer secured his place in the playoffs with a sixth-place finish last week at Darlington and a fifth-place run in Sunday's race.
Bowyer's run to the postseason, however, wasn't without a close call.
On Lap 135 of 160 in Sunday's race, Alex Bowman's No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet spun across traffic on the backstretch. Bowyer, who had pitted under caution on Lap 130, was mired in traffic and in harm's way.
As Bowman's car slid toward the inside wall, Bowyer took evasive action and narrowly missed Bowman's Chevrolet Camaro ZL1. After that, Bowyer took care of business, working his way forward and finishing in the top five.
When the race ended, Bowyer was 15 points to the good as far as the playoffs were concerned, but the close call certainly got his attention.
"Oh, gosh, just the whole day kept throwing swings at me," Bowyer said. "About the time I thought we had a good handle on this, all of a sudden here comes the 88 (Bowman). It was one of those days. It was going to be chaotic -- I said that before the race.
"The 6 car (Ryan Newman) was able to capitalize on us (in Stage 1). It all worked out in the second (stage). From there, the race came to us. We were fast. We were a top-five car. We were just trying to survive.
"Once it played out the way it did, you just needed to survive this thing. You knew it was going to be a war of attrition."
--By Reid Spencer, NASCAR Wire Service. Special to Field Level Media.