So when Newman finally made it back to victory lane, a surprising triumph in the desert to end a 77-race Sprint Cup winless drought and get his first win driving for Tony Stewart, it was that much more satisfying.
“It was tough last year, I’m not going to kid you, when I come to a new organization and it’s the same organization for Tony Stewart and he won all those races,” Newman said. “We knew what we needed to do to make our team better. And I feel that we’ve done that. We proved that.”
A late caution flag Saturday night was the only thing that kept Kyle Busch from a weekend sweep at Phoenix International Raceway. It also provided the opening for Newman, who beat Jeff Gordon in a two-lap shootout to win for the first time since the 2008 Daytona 500, and only the second time in five seasons.
“This is the most emotional victory I’ve ever had in my entire career just because it’s been so long,” Newman said during the post-race celebration in which Stewart was one of the first people to congratulate him.
With three laps left, Busch had a two-second lead over Sprint Cup points leader Jimmie Johnson, who had won four of the previous five races at the oddly shaped mile track. But Scott Riggs, in his first Cup race this season, blew a right front tire and brought out a caution to send everybody scrambling to the pits before another green-white-checkered finish.
Johnson and Busch both took four tires and exited behind six cars that changed only right-side tires. Gordon won the race off pit road ahead of Newman and defending race champion Mark Martin.
But when Gordon spun his tires on the restart, Newman shot ahead on the inside lane and stayed in front. Gordon was among those who congratulated Newman after the race.
“It’s been a long time since he’s won, and I know that meant a lot to him and that team,” Gordon said. “He told me it was a great restart. And he said, ‘Yeah, I finally got a good one.’”
After beginning his Cup career driving for Roger Penske — a 7½-season span front- loaded with success — Newman climbed into the No. 39 car for the new Stewart- Haas team last year. Newman posted 15 top-10 finishes and made the Chase for the upstart team, but didn’t win a race.
That finally changed Saturday night.
“The emotional part is when I first started in the series, it just came easy,” Newman said. “I was with a great team, had a great crew chief, great pit stops. All those things just kind of came easy to me.”
Newman had two top-10 finishes and a pole when he drove seven races for Penske in 2001.
Then in his first full season, Newman set a rookie record with 22 top 10s, finished sixth in points and topped Johnson for 2002 rookie of the year honors. He led the series in wins (eight) and poles (11) in 2003, then solidified his qualifying nickname of “Rocketman” with the most poles in each of the next two seasons.
But Newman won only twice in 2004 and once in 2005. Then he waited three more years before his next — and last — victory for Penske.
“As it got toward 2005, I got to struggling a little bit. I got a win here or there, but it was not dominant like we were back in 2002 and 2003,” Newman said. “And to come to this new organization and achieve the things that we did was great last year. But as I said all year long, I wanted to get that first victory for our team and for No. 39.”
Newman moved up six spots to 16th in points after his second consecutive top-five finish that continued an upward trend. After starting the season with an accident at Daytona and engine problems at California to finish 34th and 36th, he has improved each race since — 18th, 17th, 16th, fourth and now first.
“It was a long time coming for me personally, 77 races,” Newman said. “But to see Tony Stewart win so many races last year and be so close but not get that victory, this is really awesome for us and our team.”
Newman led only two laps before the final two. That was during a caution only 21 laps into what became a 378-lap race — instead of the scheduled 375, already 63 more than last spring.
Johnson finished third and increased his series points lead — from 14 to 36 over Matt Kenseth. Greg Biffle dropped from second to third in points after finishing 22nd Saturday night, the first time this season he wasn’t in the top 10.
“I was really happy to see where we came out,” Johnson said. “I actually made the call for four tires. ... I was excited to see the caution. It gave me the opportunity to race for the win and leave with the points stretched out a little bit.”