Published February 18, 2008
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – One down, one to go for The Captain.
Roger Penske picked up his elusive Daytona 500 victory, a $1 million bonus and a new challenge — pairing the race he just conquered with the one that means the most to him.
Ryan Newman gave Penske his first Daytona 500 victory in 24 years of trying, a frustrating span for a car owner accustomed to dominating big events: He's won the Indianapolis 500 a record 14 times.
Now he wants one more. Matching victories in two of motorsports' most sought after bounties.
"Comparing it to the Indy 500, as Ryan knows, we've been open-wheel guys and coming down here has been tough," Penske said following Sunday's victory. "This has got to go to the top of the charts here, this win. What I'm going to try to do this year is have them back-to-back, have one in May, too.
"That's my real challenge right now."
Penske earned his win in a thriller, with Newman ending an 81-race winless streak by teaming up with Kurt Busch for a last-lap pass that handed Tony Stewart yet another Daytona defeat. The Penske cars ganged up on the two-time champion, who made a strategic error that prevented him from holding off the charge.
"Kurt was the push from heaven that made it all happen," Newman said. "Without a doubt, he could have easily gone three-wide and split us through the center and made one heck of a mess there. But he chose to be a teammate, and that was the most honorable thing that he could do."
It gave Penske the win in the 50th running of the Daytona 500, and when the car owner finally made it to storied Victory Lane, he was met by Rick Hendrick, NASCAR's most powerful owner.
"I talked to Rick earlier today, and I said, 'You've been in the winner's circle so many times, if we win will you give me your hat?' He was the first one down here. So I thank him," Penske said while wearing that very cap.
"We've been working here for many years. Certainly Kurt and the teamwork was just unbelievable. It's a big day in our life and for our whole team."
The Penske cars were quiet for 199 of the 200 laps, letting Joe Gibbs Racing stars Stewart and Kyle Busch race each other in a battle of Toyotas. With one lap to go, it appeared Stewart finally would get his first Daytona 500 win in his 10th try.
Running out front in the high line, he held off the two Penske cars as they circled the famed speedway. But as the Penske teammates closed in on him, Stewart didn't feel safe running alone without any allies.
At the last second, he dropped low on the track to line up in front of Kyle Busch. The JGR teams had talked all week about the importance of teamwork, and Stewart thought he'd need Busch to make it to the checkered flag.
But the decision backfired in the blink of an eye.
Stewart couldn't hook up with Kyle Busch fast enough, and the two Penske cars steamrolled past him on the top.
Newman pulled away for his first win since New Hampshire in September 2005, while Stewart had to settle for third.
"I don't think there's too many people that would take the white flag and like finishing third," a dejected Stewart sighed. "We tried to win the Daytona 500. That's all I can say. I just made the wrong decision on the backstretch.
"My intention was to get in front of Kyle and pull Kyle along with us. It's hard to explain. It's probably one of the most disappointing moments in my racing career."
The disappointment was also evident on Greg Zipadelli, who starts his 10th season with Stewart in NASCAR's longest active driver-crew chief pairing.
"We've worked all winter, we've worked the last 10 years, I've worked my whole life," Zipadelli said. "It's just the way that it is. There's a lot of good people that haven't won this race. I'm not going to get hung up on it. I'm going to work as hard as I can, and when it's done, if we have our turn, we will.
"It won't be because we didn't work at it."
The failure was a setback for Toyota, which seemed destined to win its first points race in NASCAR's top series behind the strength of JGR.
"There's no doubt the Gibbs guys feel dejected tonight," Kurt Busch said.
The Gibbs organization joined Toyota this season, giving the manufacturer instant credibility after an embarrassing 2007 debut. Based on a strong month of testing and Denny Hamlin's win in one of Thursday's qualifying races, the JGR cars set the stage for an intense battle with powerful Hendrick Motorsports for the biggest prize in NASCAR.
But the Hendrick cars never challenged. Jeff Gordon dropped out with mechanical problems, Casey Mears and Jimmie Johnson both wrecked and, without any Hendrick help, Dale Earnhardt Jr. didn't have the muscle to hold off the Gibbs entries.
It allowed Stewart and Kyle Busch to dominate the race, only to fade at the end. Busch, who led a race-high 86 laps, finished fourth, while Hamlin was 17th.
"Just frustrating to come home fourth, but that's part of the Daytona 500," said Kyle Busch, who joined Gibbs this season after Hendrick let him go to sign Earnhardt.
"On the last lap, Stewart had a chance to go high to block (Newman) and (Busch), but they just had such a big run, I think he knew it was going to be a waste of time."
The disappointment was a stark contrast to the euphoria in the Penske camp, which finished 1-2 in NASCAR's Super Bowl.
"I was very emotional crossing the line finishing second, because I know we did something very special for The Captain tonight," said Busch, the runner-up, who was near tears when he visited Victory Lane.