Daytona 500 winner Ryan Newman gets doused by his wife, Krissie Boyle, following the race Sunday. Photo by The Associated Press
Daytona, Fla. - Another thriller, another heartbreak at the Daytona 500. For the second straight year, The Great American Race came down to the last lap. This time the drama rewarded Ryan Newman, who hadn't won in 81 races over more than two years, and team owner Roger Penske, long the king at Indianapolis but never a winner at Daytona.
Newman waited while the big stars fell back one by one. Then, with only Tony Stewart ahead of him, Newman got a "push from heaven" from teammate Kurt Busch to take the lead on the final lap.
"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 centre and made one heck of a mess there. But he chose to be a teammate, and that was the most honourable thing that he could do."
Penske, the most successful owner in open-wheel history with 14 wins in the prestigious Indianapolis 500, now has a victory in NASCAR's showcase event.
It only took him 23 years to get it.
And it came in the 50th running of the Daytona 500, in thrilling fashion, with a last-lap pass for the second consecutive year.
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."