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Race Coverage/Daily & Internet

Second Place

Thomas Pope, Fayetteville Observer

Newman gets by Stewart on final lap

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Half his life ago, Ryan Newman occupied a seat in stands as a spectator to the Daytona 500. Sunday, he cast his eyes toward that ol’ perch in the Seagrave Tower — from victory lane.
     With a shove from teammate Kurt Busch a mile from the finish, Newman charged past Tony Stewart to capture the 50th running of NASCAR’s biggest event. The victory ended Newman’s 81-race drought of more than two years, and it was worth more than $1.5 million — darn near priceless, to hear him tell it.
     “You realize where you’ve been and where you are,” said Newman, a 30-year-old native of South Bend, Ind., in his sixth full season on the Sprint Cup circuit. “This is such a big honor. It’s going to take a long time to settle in.”
     It was a triumph that had until Sunday night eluded Penske, the billionaire industrialist whose open-wheel drivers have own the Indianapolis 500 14 times.
     His stock car drivers’ average finish in the Daytona 500, on the other hand, was a miserable 23.6 when Sunday’s race began.
     “This,” Penske proclaimed, “goes to the top of the charts.”
     The decisive moment capped a three-lap skirmish for the checkered flag in which Newman helped nudge Stewart around race leader Jeff Burton and Busch’s younger brother, Kyle.
     Stewart took the white flag first with Newman on his bumper, but as they broke off the second corner and down the backstretch, Newman sidestepped to the right and out of Stewart’s wake. Kurt Busch darted in behind him, and as the lead pack wheeled left and into the third turn, Penske’s blue Dodges vaulted in front with nothing between them and the checkered flag but open asphalt.
     Newman crossed the finish line first, .092 seconds ahead of his teammate, who started the race 43rd — dead last in the field.
     “To have Newman jump up in front of me was the most beautiful thing in the world,” Kurt Busch said, “because I knew a Penske car was going to win.”
     Spying Busch charging to the rescue in his rear-view mirror was a sight to behold, Newman added, as he was about to have to try to fend off a tag-team attack from Joe Gibbs Racing stablemates Stewart and Kyle Busch by himself.
     “I knew Tony was mirror driving. He saw his teammate coming, and you want that push from your teammate more than you do from anybody else,” Newman said.
     Stewart and Kyle Busch had to settle for third and fourth. Reed Sorensen took fifth while Burton, last year’s third-place finisher, tumbled all the way to 13th.
     Penske and crew chief Roy McCauley both lauded Newman’s patience in saving his best for the last, especially in light of the mounting anxiety fueled by five crashes and the ensuing restarts over the final 85 miles. Newman led only three laps before the final trip around the 2.5-mile track – the only one that truly mattered.
     “Ryan drove a masterful race,” McCauley said. “He could run in the top five when he had the car, and if he didn’t, he kept it up there in sixth to 10th ’til we could get it right.”
Newman spoiled what had been a nearly flawless performance for the team fielded by Pro Football Hall of Fame coach Joe Gibbs. In their first points race as part of Toyota’s sophomore Cup campaign, drivers Stewart, Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin led 134 laps of the 200-lap race.
     “It breaks your heart,” said Stewart, a two-time Cup champion who’s 0-for-10 in the Daytona 500. “You spend 10 days here trying to win the biggest stock car race of your career, and when you know you’ve got the car to run up front and you can’t capitalize, it just crushes you.
     “If it didn’t matter, it wouldn’t hurt.”
     Over in victory lane, Newman – who hadn’t won since September 2005 – was feeling no pain.
“The seas parted,” he said, “and Kurt gave me the push from heaven that made it happen.”