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With future uncertain, Chase critical for Newman

August 18, 2012, Seth Livingstone, Special to NASCAR.COM, NASCAR.com

Since scoring back-to-back wins at Michigan, Ryan Newman only has two top-10s in 16 races, including a fifth-place finish last August. He finished 15th this past June. (Getty Images)

Johnson changes engine; Junior crashes in final practice, forced to backup car

BROOKLYN, Mich. -- Ryan Newman is clinging to the final spot in the Chase, but his philosophy remains anything but conservative with four races remaining to set the 12-driver field.

"Just race to win," Newman said in preparation for Sunday's Pure Michigan 400 at Michigan International Speedway. "We're not going to sit here and say that we're going to settle for fourth just because it will be a good points day for us. We're here to win and that's our focus."

Saturday Speeds

Morning Practice
Pos.DriverSpeedTime
2. K. Kahne 198.588 36.256
3. C. Edwards 198.555 36.262
4. M. Martin 198.178 36.331
5. Dale Jr. 198.134 36.339
Pos.DriverSpeedTime
2. J. Johnson 198.221 36.323
3. J. Logano 197.960 36.371
4. M. Kenseth 197.916 36.379
5. M. Martin197.488 36.458

It's a pivotal time in more ways than one for Newman, who is looking to finalize a new contract with Stewart-Haas Racing -- a deal which might be contingent on locking in future sponsors.

"I think making the Chase is big for me personally, for our team and for our organization," Newman said. "When we don't make it, it's frustrating to go through those last 10 races. In the past it hasn't changed our perspective on the next season, but this year I think it's a little bit different. [Even so], it doesn't change my mentality when I get in the race car."

Based on Saturday's early practice and Happy Hour, Newman and his Stewart-Haas team have some catching up to do at Michigan.

Newman watched Greg Biffle become the first driver to turn a 200 mph lap, bettering all competitors by more than 1 mph in the morning practice. Biffle also posted the fastest lap in Happy Hour at 198.879 mph.

Newman, after placing 15th in qualifying, posted the 14th-fastest lap in Saturday's first practice (196.442 mph) and checked in with a mid-pack 192.622 in Happy Hour.

It was a tumultuous morning for Hendrick Motorsports.

Jimmie Johnson, third in qualifying, replaced his engine prior to Saturday's first practice, then turned a lap of 198.222 mph, second only to Biffle in final practice.

"The guys saw something in warm-up this morning, and we were trying to sort through it before practice started," Johnson said. "They took a deeper look at things right before practice started and decided to change it.

"We probably could have run some of this practice, but I think we had to change the engine regardless, but we didn't want to oil the track or create an issue and crash our car."

Dale Earnhardt Jr., 11th on the board at the time, crashed in Turn 2 late in Happy Hour and was forced to a backup car. Both Johnson and Earnhardt, who won at MIS in June, will start from the rear of the pack on Sunday. Hours before the June race at Michigan, Johnson's team changed engines in the No. 48 Chevrolet, forcing Johnson to give up his 10th-place qualifying position and start from the back of the field. Ultimately, he finished fifth.

Kasey Kahne, second-fastest to Biffle in the first practice (198.588 mph), leads the wild-card race by virtue of his two victories. Newman is tops in points among wild-card contenders with one victory, but his hold on the final spot in the Chase is precarious.

Newman, a two-time winner at Michigan, is 13th in the points race, but just six points ahead of Kyle Busch and 10 ahead of Jeff Gordon. Both those drivers have their own catching up to do.

Busch was ninth-fastest in the Saturday morning practice after qualifying mid-pack in 23rd. Busch left Michigan for the Nationwide race in Montreal, leaving his car to David Reutimann to scuff tires in Happy Hour.

Gordon, who qualified 11th, was 15th on the board in the Saturday a.m. practice and 19th in Happy Hour at 195.897 mph.

Carl Edwards, winless since March 2011, knows that, realistically, the only way he can make the Chase is to win a race -- maybe two -- in the next four.

Edwards has shown the speed to contend at Michigan. After qualifying on the front row, alongside Mark Martin, he turned the third-fastest lap in Saturday's early practice (198.555 mph) and was eighth in Happy Hour (197.141).

Crew members work on Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s wrecked car to no avail. (Getty Images)

* Video: Junior hits wall in final practice at Michigan | More: Earnhardt confident in backup car

NASCAR Wire Service contributed to this report.