DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (AP) Tony Stewart needed to retire to win the Daytona 500.
Stewart's NASCAR career ended without a win in 17 tries in the Daytona 500. Just months into retirement, Stewart finally got to celebrate in victory lane.
''If I had known all I had to do was retire, I would have retired 17 years ago if I knew it was what it took to win the race,'' Stewart said.
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Kurt Busch gave Stewart the win he could never get himself, driving the No. 41 Ford to victory Sunday for Stewart-Hass Racing. Stewart, the three-time champion who owns the team with Gene Haas, retired at the end of last season and watched his four cars race from the pits.
''The look on Gene Haas' face right now, that smile, makes it all worth it,'' Stewart said.
It seemed for a spell like ''The Great American Race'' would be a disaster for Stewart-Haas Racing.
SHR's Danica Patrick and Clint Bowyer were among the 15 drivers collected in wrecks and failed to finish the race. Busch, the 2004 Cup champion, kept charging and swept past Kyle Larson on the final lap for his only lead of the race to win the Daytona 500 for the first time.
Busch had a whopping 0-fer streak of his own. He had the longest Daytona 500 drought in field, an 0-for-15 mark that started in 2001.
But this was the one for Smoke and The Outlaw.
''I ran this damn race (17) years and couldn't win it, so to finally win it as an owner and to watch Kurt, man, what an awesome job those last couple of laps,'' Stewart said. ''You just really didn't know what was going to happen because guys were trying different things. It's probably the most patient race I've ever watched Kurt Busch run. He definitely deserved that one for sure.''
Stewart gave Busch a big hug, whispered words to him during the lengthy embrace, and patted the driver on his back.
Stewart stepped away from full-time racing at the end of last season, calling it quits after 18 years, 49 wins, three Cup Series championships and more than $125 million in prize money. Out of NASCAR, he never said he was retired and planned to race 70 sprint car events at dirt tracks across the country.
Stewart seemed at peace with retirement at Dayton and joked about the perks of shifting into an ownership role. He could be late for practice, or skip it completely and no one would care. He talked wistfully about how much he would love to run the 24 Hours of Le Mans.
He never looked as happy as he did Sunday night - a Monster Energy cap on his head and crammed into photo opps with the rest of his team, smiling and laughing and a Daytona 500 champ at last.
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