- The Washington Times - Monday, February 18, 2008

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Tony Stewart knew being in the lead at Daytona International Speedway had been a losing proposition throughout the month.

He knew Penske Racing teammates Ryan Newman and Kurt Busch were making a big run on the high line off turn 2.

And he knew teammate Kyle Busch — who had the dominant car in yesterday’s Daytona 500 — was at the bottom of the track and could push him to his first 500 win.

Stewart correctly chose to go with his teammate. And it still didn’t matter.

Using momentum created by Kurt Busch’s car, Newman drove past Stewart to win the first 500 for himself and owner Roger Penske, turning a nondescript affair into a thrilling final three-lap dash.

Jeff Burton led when green-flag racing resumed on lap 198. Stewart used a great restart to take the lead. Newman used help from a teammate to take the lead down the backstretch.

“The leader was a sitting duck on every restart,” Newman said. “I got a chance to push Tony, and that made the difference. The lane moved, and it gave Kurt the opportunity to run the high line. We broke free from Tony, and then Kurt came up from behind me off turn 2 and gave me the push from the heavens.”

Kurt Busch was second, Stewart third and Kyle Busch fourth. Reed Sorenson closed out the top five. Only one of Hendrick Motorsports’ four cars (Dale Earnhardt Jr. in ninth) finished in the top 25.

On lap 198, Kyle Busch appeared to go below the yellow line in trying to pass Burton. But when he gave up at least three positions, he was not penalized. That came into play on the next lap when Stewart tried to get a push from Kyle Busch, not realizing he had lost some ground.

“I don’t know if it was the wrong decision because they had such a run. If I had gone high, I probably would have wrecked myself trying to block them,” Stewart said. “It’s probably one of the most disappointing moments of my racing career tonight.”

Penske had experienced plenty of disappointment at Daytona. Big-track and restrictor plate wins had eluded Penske, an open-wheel king (14 Indianapolis 500 wins).

“Coming down here has been tough,” he said. “This has to go to the top of the charts. I hope to go back to back and get the one in May [Indy 500], too.”

Newman had four top-seven points finishes from 2002 to 2005 but had gone 82 races without a victory, including no wins the last two seasons. He led only eight laps.

“It’s the most awesome thing that’s happened to me when you understand the history of NASCAR and racing in general,” he said. “To look face to face with some of the greats on stage during the driver’s meeting, to be a part of that team is awesome.”

The victory was sweet for crew chief Roy McCauley, a native of Davidsonville, Md., and University of Maryland graduate. Last year, he took leave from Penske Racing when his wife, Amy, was diagnosed with leukemia. Amy had a successful bone marrow transplant and was doing well enough for Roy to be reunited with Newman.

“I give my wife a lot of credit for this,” McCauley said. “It means a lot to me to stand in Victory Lane with Ryan. It’s been an emotional roller coaster, and I’m glad to be on the top of it now.”

Penske, Newman and McCauley were quick to point out Kurt Busch’s help during the final lap. When Newman slid up the track to get a push from Kurt Busch, the latter easily could have gone for the win by trying to knife between Newman and Stewart. Instead, he stayed put.

Starting 43rd and surviving an early black flag, Kurt Busch had worked his way into contention and into position to help Newman.

When Newman teamed with Rusty Wallace, it was obvious the two didn’t get along. The teams didn’t work together, didn’t share notes and the drivers wouldn’t help each other on the track. Wallace retired, Kurt Busch was signed and Sam Hornish Jr. was brought over from the Indy Racing League during the offseason.

Penske had a message for the three teams: Get along.

“Kurt could have easily gone three-wide and made a mess of things,” Newman said. “But he was the good teammate.”

The first half of the race wasn’t exciting. The first caution wasn’t until lap 81, and although lead changes were aplenty, the thrills were nil.

Business picked up over the final 38 laps when David Ragan, Matt Kenseth, Martin Truex Jr., Jimmie Johnson, Denny Hamlin, Clint Bowyer, Mark Martin, Dave Blaney and Casey Mears were involved in a combined five incidents over the next 30-plus laps.

Mears was running third when a tire went down, and he slammed the wall entering turn 2. That set up the final three-lap theatre, and the Penske teammates were faster than the Gibbs teammates.

“We’ve known it for years that when you come here, the emphasis on team is a bigger factor,” Stewart said. “Tonight was proof of that.”

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