Ryan Newman claimed an unexpected first victory of the season, beating Jeff Gordon on the final restart at Phoenix International Raceway.
The driver nicknamed "The Rocket" took on only two new tires when the field pitted under the final caution, which came out with four laps remaining. He was one of six cars in the leading group to gamble on a shorter stop, while those who had been leading before the caution opted for four tires.
Jeff Gordon led the field to the green for the final time but he got too much wheelspin at the restart, and Newman made the most of his rival's mistake to grab the lead and hold on to it for the final two miles of racing in the green-white-checkered finish.
Newman had not been in a position to win the race before the final caution, but had run consistently in the top 10. Before he made the call for new right-side tires in the end, he had just passed Clint Bowyer for fifth place. The Stewart-Haas Racing driver's victory is his first race win since joining the team last year, and ended a 78-race winless streak that dated back to his Daytona 500 win for Penske Racing in 2008.
"I kind of threw Tony Gibson [crew chief] under the bus because he wanted to put four new tires on and I said, 'Just give me two, I like the track position,'" Newman said about his key strategy choice. "I would rather block. I was in a good position there obviously. I restarted on the bottom side earlier in the night and could not get going a couple of times. So on two tires I was kind of impressed. We had a lot of guys behind us on two tires so it was a good situation to be in."
For the second race in a row, Gordon led the final sprint of the race but failed to take the victory. Although he seemed frustrated by losing a race that could have been his, he praised his team for putting him in a position to win.
"I just couldn't get it done for our team," said Gordon. "I spun the tires on the restart and Ryan had a good jump on me getting in to Turn 1. It was pretty much game over at that point. We had a good car, we were the second-place car, we finished second, I'm still pretty happy and proud of that effort."
The race looked for the most part like a three-way battle between Jimmie Johnson, Juan Montoya and Kyle Busch. The Joe Gibbs Racing driver was unquestionably the biggest loser of the day as he was comfortably leading the race and on his way to a comfortable first win of the season when Scott Riggs hit the wall right in front of him due to a right-front tire issue, causing the final caution to come out. Busch changed four tires, dropped from the lead down to eighth, and was unable to make any progress in the final laps.
Reigning series champion and points leader Jimmie Johnson led for 113 laps – the same as Busch – and ran second until the final caution. From seventh on the final restart he made up four spots to cross the finish line in third.
"I actually made the call for four tires," said Johnson. "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 had a shot at it. I restarted seventh and with another lap or two, we would have been there."
Montoya showed great pace again, putting the Earnhardt Ganassi car in the lead for 104 laps after passing Tony Stewart on lap 39. He would later battle with Johnson, eventually losing the lead to him on the fourth restart of the day. In the final two laps, he made up four places to take a solid fifth place that brings his bad streak to an end.
"We were a little faster with the sun out," said Montoya referring to the daylight portion of the race. "But we were a top five all day – or even a top three or two. We kind of got lost there a little bit at the end. But, those green-white-checkereds are all about luck and about timing. You take two new tires and you get three restarts and you finish 15th, you know? We thought we did the right thing and we still got a top five out of it. So I was very happy. We needed this; we really needed this."
Mark Martin had a difficult day for the most part, but ran on the lead lap while struggling for balance. In the last portion of the race he suddenly started to move up, breaking into the top 10 before a similar call to Gordon's and Newman's allowed him to jump up to third for the final restart. He took fourth in a Hendrick Motorsports 2-3-4.
Roush Fenway's Matt Kenseth and Carl Edwards scored top tens, as did Bowyer and JGR's Logano. Polesitter AJ Allmendinger led for the first few laps and finished 15th in the end.
Johnson continues to lead the Sprint Cup standings ahead of Kenseth and Roush Fenway's Greg Biffle.
Pos Driver Car Laps
1. Ryan Newman Chevrolet 378
2. Jeff Gordon Chevrolet 378
3. Jimmie Johnson Chevrolet 378
4. Mark Martin Chevrolet 378
5. Juan Montoya Chevrolet 378
6. Matt Kenseth Ford 378
7. Carl Edwards Ford 378
8. Kyle Busch Toyota 378
9. Clint Bowyer Chevrolet 378
10. Joey Logano Toyota 378
11. Marcos Ambrose Toyota 378
12. Dale Earnhardt Jr Chevrolet 378
13. Kevin Harvick Chevrolet 378
14. Robby Gordon Toyota 378
15. A.J. Allmendinger Ford 378
16. Brad Keselowski Dodge 378
17. Martin Truex Jr Toyota 378
18. Sam Hornish Jr Dodge 378
19. David Ragan Ford 378
20. David Reutimann Toyota 378
21. Scott Speed Toyota 378
22. Greg Biffle Ford 378
23. Tony Stewart Chevrolet 378
24. Jamie McMurray Chevrolet 378
25. Jeff Burton Chevrolet 378
26. Regan Smith Chevrolet 378
27. Bobby Labonte Chevrolet 378
28. Scott Riggs Chevrolet 377
29. Paul Menard Ford 377
30. Denny Hamlin Toyota 376
31. Elliott Sadler Ford 375
32. David Gilliland Ford 374
33. Kevin Conway Ford 371
34. Terry Cook Dodge 367
35. Kurt Busch Dodge 366
36. Travis Kvapil Ford 309
37. Brian Vickers Toyota 288
38. Joe Nemechek Toyota 281
39. Kasey Kahne Ford 276
40. Max Papis Toyota 214
41. Johnny Sauter Chevrolet 161
42. Dave Blaney Toyota 160
43. Michael McDowell Toyota 149