A team known more for its precision and execution, Johnson wasn’t able to turn his race-best 73 laps led into his fifth win in eight years at the historic speedway.
When Johnson’s team stopped for two tires in the next-to-last pit stop, Newman took four tires. On the final stop crew chief Matt Borland decided to change two tires while Johnson’s team changed four.
That strategy kept Newman close to Johnson during the stretch drive – and in position to take advantage of a rare glitch by Johnson’s No. 48 team when their final pit stop took four seconds longer than Newman’s.
That helped Newman win by 2.658 seconds – or about 125 yards.
“I watched Jimmie, kept quiet,” Newman said. “I wanted to see who I was placing. Played the old (David) Pearson role. I knew I had a good car. I didn’t want to have a good car and not win the race. Matt’s call gave me the track position I needed, taking the two tires. I was just counting down the laps from that point on.”
After the final pit stop, Johnson quickly knew the timely mistake, coupled with Newman’s two-tire strategy, was too much to overcome.
“When you’re the dominant car, they’re going to do the opposite of what you do,” Johnson said. “I think I pitted before them, so it was an easy call for them to do the opposite. The two [tire change] gave them the track position they needed. With the mistake, they had good track position.”
For a driver who knows he won’t return to the No. 39 Chevrolet next year at Stewart-Haas Racing, the victory couldn’t have come at a more important time for Newman. But there were other reasons why the South Bend, Ind., driver embraced the win like no other.
“It’s special to me because it’s Indiana,” he said before the race. “But it’s more special to me because it’s the Brickyard, because it’s Indy, because of the history of auto racing at this facility.”
Newman took the lead once the final round of green flag stops ended with with 11 to go. From there, Newman had an easy drive to Victory Lane.
“That probably was the best car I’ve ever had,” Newman said.
Kasey Kahne was third, followed by Stewart in fourth, Matt Kenseth in fifth, Dale Earnhardt Jr. in sixth, Jeff Gordon in seventh, Joey Logano in eighth, Juan Pablo Montoya in ninth and Kyle Busch in 10th.
A day after Newman set the stock car track record in pole qualifying, he started by leading the first 28 laps. Although he stayed in the lead pack, he wasn’t a real contender until the final 27 laps.
Two pit stops put him in position. The driver did the rest.
“Matt’s call helped me out personally,” Newman said. “I knew we’d be the leader. After that, it was my job to keep the splitter [front bumper] of the rumple strips and the back-right off the wall.”
Like most of the other 19 Sprint Cup races at Indianapolis, Sunday’s race didn’t have a lot of action up front. Lead changes generally were the result of pit stops and varying pit strategies.
Johnson and Newman combined to lead 118 of 160 laps.
“It was down to [Newman] and the 48 [Johnson],” said Newman’s car owner and fourth-place finisher, Tony Stewart. “That was easy to see.”
Borland said the decision to make a quicker two-tire stop on Lap 133 was made earlier in the race. Johnson’s deficit grew even deeper when it took extra time to change the right-rear tire on the final stop. After making routine stops in less than 13 seconds all race, the final stop took more than 18 seconds.
“What’s on my mind: We win as a team, lose as a team,” Johnson said. “There’s been some late race mistakes on my behalf that have taken race wins away from us; granted not a major event like this. But we win as a team, lose as a team.
“We still ended up second. We have a lot to be proud of over the course of the weekend. We’ll do the best to let it roll off our shoulders by [Monday] afternoon.”
Including Newman, six of the top seven finishers – and seven of the top nine – were powered by engines built at Hendrick Motorsports.