Race Coverage/Daily & Internet
Kave Kallmann, Milwaukee Journal
THANKS FOR THE PUSH
Daytona Beach, Fla. – Ryan Newman’s guardian angel wears a blue suit with beer logos, not wings and a halo; he drives 200 mph has been compared with the devil himself.
But hey, it’s the 50th Daytona 500.
You take ’em where you find ’em, and you thank ’em when you’re done.
"Kurt was the push from heaven that made it all happen," Newman said, and he was right.
Without Kurt Busch’s help Sunday, Newman would be just another frustrated driver with a two-year-losing streak. Busch would be just a top-five guy, forcing a smile that he wanted to be bigger.
And Roger Penske, the embodiment of success in the Indianapolis 500 with his 14 victories, would have walked away from Daytona empty-handed for the 24th time.
But when Busch lined up behind Newman on the final lap and pushed him past Tony Stewart, the three could celebrate — with all of their crews and all of their teammates — a historic victory for all of them.
"I was emotional pushing him across the line," said Busch, whose aggressive style and hot head have earned him more enemies than friends.
"To have Newman jump up in front of me, I thought that was the most beautiful thing in the world because I knew one of us Penske cars was going to win at that point. I’m not bitter at all for finishing second."
The victory was Newman’s 13th and his first since Sept. 18, 2005, in Loudon, N.H.
His Dodge reached the finish line 0.920 of a second ahead of Busch’s in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series opener.
Stewart settled for third in a Toyota with his teammate Kyle Busch, Kurt’s younger brother, behind him.
Kyle Busch led a race-high 86 laps but couldn’t position himself where he needed on the last lap of the night. He had dropped below the yellow line on a restart with three laps to go, and had to drop back to avoid a penalty.
When the white flag flew, Stewart led, with Newman and Kurt Busch side-by-side behind him and Kyle Busch behind Newman in the inside line. Stewart tried to block on the backstretch, so Newman pulled to the outside, where the surge from his teammate pushed him to the lead.
"I just made the wrong decision on the backstretch," said Stewart, a two-time series champion who finished second in the 500 in 2004. "Thought I would get a push down there.
"I don’t know if I could have stopped them anyway, even if I would have changed lanes. I’d say most likely we would have ended up like a bunch of other guys: wrecked. In hindsight, tomorrow I’m going to be a lot happier about it."
Another half-dozen drivers could say the same before the sting of defeat wears off.
Three-time winner Jeff Gordon lost a good car to suspension failure.
Denny Hamlin had handling problems from an on-track scuffle.
Crowd favorite Dale Earnhardt Jr. guessed wrong in the draft and fell from first to 12th in the final 20 laps.
Clint Bowyer got spun from the lead, and Jeff Burton got jumped on the final restart with three laps do go and fell to 13th.
All of that played into Newman’s hands.
"We struggled for grip at the start of the race," Newman said. "I think we fell back to, like, 18th or 19th at one point there. I watched the scoring pylon count the laps down. I knew where I needed to be at a certain time."
He got there, and took Penske to a new place, too. He knows Indy’s winner’s circle like his living room, but this was new territory for The Captain.
"To come and have the opportunity to win, which we have here, then to be able to execute, is certainly special," Penske said. "This goes to the top of the charts for victories for Penske Racing."
For Newman, it was the culmination of a quest lasting more than half his 30 years. Although Indiana-born, he knew about stock cars early in life, as well. Newman’s father, Greg, pulled him out of middle school, and they sat in the Seagrave tower to watch the race.
Greg now serves as Ryan’s spotter but quickly moved from the tower roof to victory lane to deliver a bear hug.
"I could hear the tears dripping going down the back straightaway over the radio," Newman said.
"He was emotional, as he always is."
On Saturday morning, Newman sat in the drivers meeting and soaked in the history as Daytona International Speedway celebrated its 50th 500 with the help of its living champions.
Newman shared the room with Richard Petty and Pete Hamilton, Cale Yarborough and Bobby Allison, A.J. Foyt and Mario Andretti.
Now his name will be mentioned along with theirs.
How simply divine.