LOUDON, N.H. - With impending rain making the drivers run every lap as though it might be the last, Ryan Newman held off repeated challenges from Kurt Busch yesterday to win an eventful, though weather-shortened, New Hampshire 300.
On a day when Mark Martin's 16th-place finish was enough to end Sterling Marlin's grip on the Winston Cup points lead, Newman kept his Ford in front of Busch's in a stirring duel between two 24-year-old rising Winston Cup stars at New Hampshire International Speedway.
Newman got the lead when Johnny Benson got stacked up behind lapped traffic on Lap 141, then regained it after a round of green-flag stops just past the halfway point that teams had been pointing toward all day in a race delayed twice and ultimately shortened by 93 laps by rain.
Since a Winston Cup race is official once it reaches halfway, teams built their pit strategies around Lap 150. Newman got to that point with the lead, then made a stop six laps later. When Robby Gordon, who won this race a season ago, pitted on Lap 167 to complete the cycle, Newman was still out front.
"We were talking about putting on just two tires and half a tank of gas," crew chief Matt Borland said. "But we kind of chickened out and put four tires on."
Good thing, too, because the rain - not to mention darkness, thanks to a one-hour delay at the start and a 1-hour, 48-minute stoppage after just 22 laps - held off longer than anyone could have expected.
With Busch riding on his rear bumper almost all of the way, Newman had to hold on until Lap 199, when the rain returned and the yellow flag came out.
Busch made one more desperate attempt to take the win away, but Newman held on to join fellow rookie Jimmie Johnson and Busch on this season's list of first-time winners after eight more laps were run under yellow before the track got too wet to continue.
"It's awesome," said Newman, whose father, Greg, was on hand to witness his son's first victory in his 35th Cup start after he'd finished second the past two weeks and five times in his budding career.
"One of the coolest parts was when I got the checkered flag, every driver out there came by and congratulated me. That means a lot."
Marlin wound up 21st and, for the first time since the season's second race at Rockingham, fell from the top spot in the standings.
Martin, who has never won the championship, now leads by a mere six points. The last time he led in points was in April of 2000 and the last time he led this late in the season was in 1997, when he led by 13 points with 10 races to go.
"The points lead doesn't mean anything right now," Martin said. "There are nine races to go. If I hadn't had a flat tire today, I'd have a bigger lead. But if I had wrecked, I wouldn't have the lead at all. It could have been worst and it certainly could have been better."
With nine races left this season, there are now five drivers within 67 points of the lead - the biggest logjam atop the standings
Johnson, who finished ninth yesterday and now trails Newman, 328-304, in the Rookie of the Year standings, is 40 back. Tony Stewart, who passed Benson late to take third in Sunday's race, is 59 back and Jeff Gordon, 14th yesterday, is 67 behind.