Before the drop of the green flag in Sunday's Daytona 500, two of NASCAR's "super teams" stood out as favorites to win the 50th running of the "Great American Race." The Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolets and Joe Gibbs Racing Toyotas dominated ...
Before the drop of the green flag in Sunday's Daytona 500, two of NASCAR's "super teams" stood out as favorites to win the 50th running of the "Great American Race." The Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolets and Joe Gibbs Racing Toyotas dominated Speedweeks, and the latter led much of the race. But in the end, they both fell short to the late-race punch put out by the fleet of Dodges, led by winner Ryan Newman and Penske Racing teammate Kurt Busch. Making things even sweeter, Penske walked away with a $1 million bonus.
On race morning, Chrysler Chairman and CEO Bob Nardelli announced Dodge Motorsports would award a $1 million bonus to the team that would put their Dodge in victory lane. Nardelli, the former CEO of Home Depot, felt confident of paying out the money. But many suggested the odds were stacked up against the Chargers.
Much of the race looked to be an all Toyota affair, with only the Hendrick Motorsports Chevy of Dale Earnhardt Jr. one of the few to challenge the Joe Gibbs Racing Camrys. However, a late-race caution set up a three-lap shootout to the checkers. Newman restarted fourth and benefited from a huge push from teammate Busch to pass Tony Stewart for the lead. From there, the two charged to the checkered flag, taking a 1-2 finish for team owner Roger Penske.
"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."
Newman's win, which also marked Penske's first Daytona 500 crown after nearly 30 years of trying, awarded the team the $1 million bonus from Dodge for winning. This was in addition to the $1.5 million Newman collected in racing winnings from NASCAR, making it a very lucrative day for the team.
"We're going to spend it to make the cars go faster," Penske said of the bonus. "I'm sure that'll be the first thing we'll do. It was great. Bob Nardelli and I go back when I was at the Home Depot board. To see him as the CEO of Chrysler, he's really put some time and effort and gives us people to make this a much better program."
Busch came home second, making it a true team effort for Penske Racing. Starting dead last after using past champion's provisional, the No. 2 Dodge worked its way up the field. In the end, Busch was in the right place at the right time.
"To give my teammate a shot and to push him to victory makes me feel like we won this thing as well, right along with him," Busch said. "You have to have teammates when you are restrictor plate racing. You have to work together whether you are on the track or off the track. Penske Racing deserves this. It's our first ever restrictor plate win and we came through with a one-two finish."
Joe Gibbs Racing came in as favorites for the win. Making the switch from Chevrolet to Toyota over the off-season, Stewart, Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch all proved to be factors in the race. Hamlin dropped out of contention late in the running due to a damaged fender. Stewart and Busch charged on, finishing third and fourth but lost out to the Penske freight train.
"Those guys had such a head of steam," said Kyle Busch of the Penske tandem. "They got ahead of me on that restart. They lagged back and then got a big push... Just frustrating to come home fourth, but that's a part of the Daytona 500."
Hendrick Motorsports was another "super team" expected to shine in the race. Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon dominated the Cup circuit last season, securing a 1-2 result in the championship. With Earnhardt Jr. joining the organization for 2008 and Casey Mears moving over to the No. 5 car, many predicted the team to start the new season where they left off. However, things didn't go exactly as planned. Defending champion Johnson as well as Mears were collected in separate incidents while Gordon suffered suspension failure. Earnhardt Jr. was left to fly the flag for the team, finishing ninth.
"I would have liked to finish better tonight; obviously, I think we had a top-five car all day," Earnhardt said. "It is frustrating, but at the end of that race, anything is going to happen and guys get shuffled around. You just kind of take what you can get without wrecking. It is frustrating, but we are happy with a top-10, it'll do."
While the Gibbs Toyotas and Hendrick Chevys had mixed results, the surprise of the race came from the Dodges. Six Chargers finished in the top-eight, showing a turnaround in its superspeedway program. Chip Ganassi Racing's Reed Sorenson finished fifth while Gillett Evernham Motorsports teammates Elliott Sadler and Kasey Kahne came home sixth and seventh. Robby Gordon, who made the switch to Dodge just two weeks ago, finished eighth. Other strong Dodge runners included Bobby Labonte in 11th and rookie Sam Hornish Jr. in a third Penske entry finishing a career-best 15th.
"Listening to all the hype this week you heard a lot about a lot of people besides the Dodge Boys," said Mike Accavitti, Director of Dodge Motorsports. "We knew we had a super-strong team. We knew we were going to have a great season and we couldn't be more proud of all our Dodge teams. Again, six out of the top eight in this great race with all of this heritage, and the 50th anniversary and winning it -- this is just an awesome day for Dodge and all of our race teams."
Monday morning, Newman began his whirlwind tour of media activities -- with the first stop being the Daytona 500 Experience (formally known as Daytona USA). His race-winning No. 12 Dodge was inducted into the exhibit. It will stay on display there all year.
"It's sinking in," Newman said Monday of the win. "It takes time. It's huge. It's the 50th running of the Daytona 500 and it's just an honor to be up here with Roger Penske and (crew chief) Roy McCauley and all these guys over here in the blue shirts -- I kinda want them to go back to work pretty soon."
Newman's wish will soon be granted as his team, along with everyone else, will have their mind this weekend's Auto Club 500 at California Speedway. Penske and Dodge are all fired up, hoping to repeat the success from Daytona and build momentum. But Penske knows it's a long road ahead.
"I think as we go forward, this will give our team a lot of momentum," Penske said. "But I can tell you this; we're going to line up with everybody else next week in California. I don't think because you won the Daytona 500 they give you an extra lap ahead of the field."