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After what had to be one of the longest races of his Winston Cup career, Ryan Newman left Las Vegas Motor Speedway on Sunday wanting only one thing.
Newman fell two laps behind the leaders early in the 267-lap race, but he battled back to finish seventh and picked up five bonus points for leading a lap.
"We had the car to beat at the end," said Newman, 25-year-old driver of the No.12 Dodge. "We just weren't in the position to beat everybody.
"Even if we'd had another 30 laps, I think we could have been right there with them."
Matt Kenseth won the UAW-DaimlerChrysler 400, but Newman had the more eventful race.
He started third, but his Penske Racing team missed badly on the setup and he began to slide backward through the field with a loose race car. The condition was made worse when a tear-off from the windshield came free and lodged in the grill. He was forced to pit to keep the engine from overheating.
One lap down.
Out of sequence with his pit schedule, Newman made his next stop several laps before the leaders were due and crossed his fingers that the race would stay green until the entire field cycled onto pit road. He was not that lucky.
Two laps down.
With every visit to pit road, crew chief Matt Borland called for changes that made the car stronger. Even though the race had only six cautions, Newman got both laps back.
"We earned them, too," Newman said.
As lead-lap cars made their final green-flag pit stops, Newman stayed on the track to lead Laps 230-232. The five bonus points he earned made the day a huge success.
A championship day.
Last year's rookie of the year, Newman is expected to contend for the Winston Cup championship this season. After finishing last at the Daytona 500 and 14th at Rockingham, he needed a top-10 finish at Las Vegas to remain in the hunt.
Newman climbed 15 places in the standings to 17th, 155 points behind leader Michael Waltrip.
"We've got a bunch of racing left, so we're not going to throw in the towel just yet," Newman said.
SIGNS OF LIFE: Dale Earnhardt Jr. had a much-needed runner-up run that kept him from falling further behind in the title chase.
Earnhardt climbed 20 spots to 18th, 157 points behind Waltrip.
"The team did a great job preparing the car and then making some great stops to keep me up front," said Earnhardt, who led four times for a race-high 97 laps in the No.8 Chevrolet. "This is how good we are supposed to be, you know?"
Earnhardt was dejected after finishing 36th in the Daytona 500 because of a faulty alternator. He was 33rd at Rockingham, never one of his better tracks. But momentum is a powerful thing.
"This does a lot for our confidence, my confidence," Earnhardt said. "We're happy and we're relieved to run so good and then have a finish to show for it."
SIGNS OF STRIFE: Jeff Gordon thought he got off to a rough start last year?
After three events, his best finish is 12th, and he is 20th in the standings.
TEMPLATE TEMPEST: Las Vegas, the first downforce track of the season, was the first true test of NASCAR's efforts to create aerodynamic parity by using 18 common templates for the four manufacturers.
The result: six Chevrolets, two Fords and two Dodges in the top 10. Kenseth won in a Ford, followed by four Chevys. Newman's was the top Dodge in seventh.
The verdict: Stay tuned.
PIT STOPS: Dale Earnhardt Inc.'s three cars finished among the top 10: Earnhardt second, Waltrip third and Steve Park 10th. ... Mark Martin blew an engine and finished last, ending his streak of top-10 finishes in five previous Las Vegas races.
COLOR CODING: Park and Mike Skinner caused wrecks that knocked Dale Jarrett, Rusty Wallace, Kurt Busch and Jeff Gordon out. Elliott Sadler lost control and spun into the wall.
The moral of the story?
Stay away from yellow cars.
GRAND PRIX TICKETS: From Saturday to March 29, fans who had reserved seats for the St. Petersburg Grand Prix can renew or upgrade for next year's race at 2003 prices, from $35 for Sunday-only general admission to $105 for Friday-Sunday reserved upper grandstand. Information: 1-888-34-SPEED (1-888-347-7333) or www.gpstpete.com. For group tickets, sponsorship or hospitality club packages, (727) 894-7749.