Tom Bowles
Sunday April 11th, 2010

We see it all the time in sports.

Just when you think a lead is safe, a fourth quarter, ninth inning comeback leaves a certain favorite falling apart. Winning is about playing every minute, completing every lap because you never know when Lady Luck might turn toward someone else.

In NASCAR, 2010 has been filled with lessons of how to lose at the last minute. In five of the last seven races -- including the last four -- the leader with ten laps to go has failed to go on to Victory Lane. Instead, the hardware slipped through their fingers in the form of a late-race yellow flag, a poor pit call, or an untimely bump that's given the glory to someone else.

Why are these epic collapses turning into a stock car epidemic? Let's dig deeper in the Five Things We've Learned From Phoenix:

1. When in doubt ... stay out. In each of the last four races, the race's final caution has turned it into a giant jigsaw puzzle. Coming with less than 20 laps left, crew chiefs for cars up front have a heart attack, forcing a square peg into a round hole while they panic. Fearful of other lead lap cars beating them by diving into the pits, they choose to do it instead, trading track position for four fresh Goodyears that, in theory, will give them the speed to win.

There's just one problem with that call: it rarely works. After Dave Rogers' fateful decision for Kyle Busch on Saturday, it's 1-for-3 the last three weeks, with only Denny Hamlin's banzai Martinsville mission bucking the trend. Even then, the No. 11 dropped from first to tenth after his stop, with several other lead lap cars choosing to stay out or take just two tires in posing a roadblock that proved nearly too much to overcome.

So, after watching the chaos unfold again at Phoenix -- Busch flopped to eighth, pitting after leading 111 laps in a row -- there's just one question that comes to mind for these "head" wrenches.

Why not stay out?

For the last three years, all the talk about is how track position is more crucial than ever. The new car makes passing for the lead almost impossible, with cars half-a-second faster stopping dead in their tracks around someone else with the aero push. So why in the world would a team, while running in first place, give up clean air and controlling the restart to make their lives ten times harder?

In theory, if you're leading under green flag conditions, you should have the best car in the field. So, even if others get fresh tires, isn't the pressure on them to pass you? Considering most of these late-race scenarios come in the form of a green-white-checkered restart, any of these guys have just two laps to make their move. Two laps!

History has shown that's not nearly enough time to pull off a move from back in the pack. One thing is for sure: this "shooting yourself in the foot" theory isn't really helping some of the sport's top teams down the stretch.

2. Joe Gibbs Racing should still hold its head up high. Sure, Kyle Busch stormed off after the race, bitter a win slipped away. But when Busch and the rest of JGR take a moment to breathe, they'll realize how crucial this weekend was for their program.

For Busch, an eighth place finish was still a season-best, 113 laps led quadrupling his total for 2010. Add in a top 10 for teammate Joey Logano, and the duo jumped to a healthy 11th and 12th in points.

But perhaps the gutsiest performance came from teammate Denny Hamlin. Hobbled by his ACL to the point he could barely walk, the 29-year-old defied the odds by running the entire race in his No. 11. Not only that, but he led the first practice session with the same surgery that sidelined Tom Brady for months. Hamlin, in contrast, was back in nine days, leaving relief driver Casey Mears on top of his pit box in stunned silence. The finish (30th) wasn't memorable, but the mental boost it gave both driver and crew is momentous in his bid to quickly recover.

3. Ryan Newman is back on pace to make the Chase. As I wrote Thursday, critics have soured on Stewart-Haas' sluggish start. Entering Phoenix, driver/owner Tony Stewart and Newman had combined for just two top-5 finishes, misfiring with an organization that made the Chase on all cylinders last year. After Martinsville, Stewart was clinging to eighth in points while Newman sat outside the top 20, leaving many to speculate the "sophomore slump" could cost one or both a second straight playoff appearance.

But after Newman's stunning come-from-behind win at Phoenix, there's a different type of question being asked: "Where did he come from?"

"It's racing, man," he said of a frantic finish. "It's racing all the way up until the checkered flag falls. You never know what happens."

Except for what happens from here, of course. Breaking a personal 77-race winless drought, the No. 39 team seems primed and ready to break right back into the Chase. Closing to within 42 points of 12th-place Kyle Busch, he's heading toward the same stretch of tracks that launched a three-month hot streak last spring. And let's not forget one of the first people to congratulate him in Victory Lane: his "teammates" at Hendrick Motorsports. You think the "A" team's going to let the "B" team flounder in any way, shape, or form? HMS wants all its chassis and engines in the Chase, and there's too much money, info, and testing for Newman to be on the outside looking in.

4. Jeff Gordon has got to be frustrated. What more does Jeff Gordon have to do to get to Victory Lane? True, racing's Rainbow Warrior snagged a runner-up finish with about a fourth-place car. But for the third time this season, he had a real shot at getting the win -- only to self-destruct. Up front for the final restart, he was neck-and-neck with Ryan Newman before slipping just enough for Newman to edge ahead in turn 1.

"I'm frustrated because I spun the tires on the restart," Gordon said. "I felt like we really had ourselves in the right position to win the race."

If it was a one-time thing, it wouldn't be so bad. But it's the seventh runner-up finish for Gordon in a winless streak that's now at 36. It's the third time this season crew chief Steve Letarte used a two-tire gamble to get him out front; so far, they're 0-for-3.

"I really like the kind of calls Letarte makes," Gordon claims. "He's gutsy. He's not afraid to take chances. And they've paid off."

I'm not so convinced. How good are those risks without a trophy? It's like Butler's half-court shot that rimmed out; sure, it was a gutsy game by a gutsy team. But, in the end, someone else went home with the hardware, and you're sitting there wondering what might have been.

5. Mark Martin got a make-up call. The win went to Newman, but no one got a luckier break than the race's defending champ. Dog meat most of the night, Martin seemed destined for a 10th-15th place run until Alan Gustafson's daring call for two tires. That left him with track position he just wouldn't give up, coming home fourth to tie his season best. More importantly, NASCAR's Charlie Brown broke a string of bad luck in the form of three wrecks that left him out-of-balance. Now, he heads to Texas 13th in points and pointed back in the right direction.

Underdog Shoutout of the Week: It was his blown tire that caused the race's final caution, ruining what would have been a 25th-place finish. But you can't understate the job Scott Riggs did for the underfunded, unsponsored No. 90 car in just his first run behind the wheel. Subbing for Casey Mears, he ran as high as 20th, on the lead lap with a car that qualified for just one of the last six races. Mears may suffer from a "Double Whammy" this week; not only does Hamlin no longer need him, but you wonder if this car does, either.

Race Grade: B. Phoenix had its moments, but the last 100 laps were a bit of a snoozer until Russian Roulette in the form of a final restart came calling. The green-white-checker finish has caused a lot of unpredictability as of late; but keep in mind it's not a fix-all. If the racing's rough enough for the first 300-someodd laps, no one will stick around to see it anyway.

Want race updates and NASCAR inside information you can't find anywhere else? Follow Tom on Twitter at NASCARBowles. You can also e-mail him at tbowles81@yahoo.com.

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