FORT WORTH, Texas --- Ryan Newman didn't have the fastest car in Saturday's race at Phoenix International Raceway. But like so many other winners this year, he didn't need one.
A late-race caution put his team in position to take a gamble on a two-tire pit stop. When his car wasn't good enough to get to the front on its own, crew chief Tony Gibson gambled that track position for the final four laps was better than traction.
Newman parlayed his spot at the front of the final restart into a mad dash. While Jimmie Johnson, Kyle Busch and Juan Pablo Montoya combined to lead 330 of 375 laps, their gambles on four tires didn't pay off.
Five of seven races this year have been won on pit road. Pit strategies, not fast cars, have played a greater roll in outcomes.
"We didn't think we had a winning car," Gibson said of Newman's No. 39 Chevrolet.
But they had a winning, if not lucky, strategy that proved more important.
Johnson won the race at California by pitting as the final caution flag waved. That put him ahead of everyone else when they made their stops during the yellow flag.
A week later Jeff Gordon led 219 laps at Las Vegas, but he gambled on a two tire stop at the end of the race while Johnson changed four. This time, traction was more important and Johnson won.
Johnson also won at Bristol Motor Speedway in March. He went from sixth to Victory Lane in the final three laps with another four-tire change with 10 laps to go. Kurt Busch, who led 278 laps, also changed four tires, but he got stuck behind slower traffic on the restart and finished third.
Denny Hamlin won a week later at Martinsville, Va., with a four-tire change with eight laps remaining. He restarted ninth behind eight cars that either skipped the final stop or changed two tires, but the added traction helped him lead the final two laps.
This time it was a decision for two tires that created another improbable winner in Newman.
The majority of races this year have been won in the final 20 laps by a gamble. The car that's led the most laps has won only twice this year.
"It's difficult to make a decision and you just hope and pray it comes out the one you make," Gibson said.
Reach Don Coble at firstname.lastname@example.org