On February 20th Roger Penske turns 71 years old and this birthday will be one of his fondest to date—I am sure!
On Sunday February 17th at approximately 7pm EST his one/two punch of racers Kurt Busch and Ryan Newman achieved something that no other Penske Racing drivers had done in 20 years. That achievement was winning a 'restrictor plate race' at Daytona International Speedway!
Driving in a crowd for the final 10 laps it was not until a late flag - following a Casey Mears wreck - that enabled the two Penske Dodges to get a run on the then leader Tony Stewart, driving in his seemingly untouchable, Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota, and powered passed him with less then two laps to go.
The very unselfish move by teammate Kurt Busch pushing or bump drafting Newman's Alltel Dodge passed a lame duck Stewart - in his Home Depot Toyota - allowed Team Penske to finish a very successful day at the track for Dodge and their 'restrictor plate' racing programme. Besides Newman winning and Kurt Busch finishing second automaker Dodge finished the 50th running of the historic Daytona 500 with 6 of the top 8 spots filled with their race cars. A very impressive, yet totally unexpected day for the much maligned automaker.
This Daytona 500 was suppose to be all about the re-birth of Dale Earnhardt Jr. and his return to competitiveness with Hendrick Motorsports. Junior had already won two races at Daytona Speedweeks - including the exhibition Bud Shootout last Saturday and the first Gatorade Duel Qualifying race on Valentines Day. He started third on the grid on Sunday and eventually would finish 9th in the race. In the final laps of the race Junior had no drafting partners left on the racetrack as all the remaining Toyota and Dodge drivers left Junior and his Amp Chevrolet out in the Daytona evening cold! Once teammate Casey Mears, who was running upfront with Junior collided with the wall on Turn 1 with 4 laps to go, Junior must have known that his chances of winning were over because no one in the remaining pack had plans to draft with him.
Friend and rival Tony Stewart was awaiting his new teammate Kyle Busch to jump into the drafting action on lap 197 of the 200 lap race, but Busch - who was running 2nd at the time of the Mears accident - was forced to slow-up on the re-start as he jumped the gun on Ryan Newman who had re-started in the lead. (Nascar would have ordered Busch to give up his gained positions.) Tony Stewart took the lead from Newman and was awaiting for his drafting partner (Busch) to re-group from his overzealous re-start; however, Kyle could not get his momentum back and the outside freight train led by Newman and Kyle's older brother Kurt came flying by Stewart and they carried that momentum for the remaining lap and a half and thus won the race. Stewart finished a disappointing third and the younger Busch, who had by far the strongest car all day and led the most laps, finished a somber 4th.
The whole week leading up to the race had all the talk revolving around Hendrick Motorsports all-star team including Jeff Gordon, who finished a disappointing 39th - suspension problems—and reigning series champion and pole-sitter Jimmie Johnson who finished 27th after being involved in a wreck late in the race. That story ended and an up-start one began.
In the end it was a Roger Penske Dodge driven by Ryan Newman who up-set this NASCAR apple cart. Newman who has raced 23 times at Daytona without a victory and who had not won a Sprint Cup race since September 18, 2005 @ New Hampshire - won the 50th running of he Daytona 500 after an 81 race winless drought. His timing was impeccable to break out of his two plus year funk!
For Roger Penske, who has won 61 Sprint Cup races as an owner, it was a sweet birthday present. Not only did he win the trophy he was given a gift from his good friend and rival team owner Rick Hendrick - who has won Daytona several times. Before the race, Penske asked Hendrick for one of his 'H' logo race caps. (Because Hendrick has won so many times.) At the conclusion of the race Penske was doing all his interviews with his new Hendrick's 'H' cap on.
Hendrick's birthday present could not have happened at a better time for Penske or his slumping driver Ryan Newman.
Happy Birthday Roger Penske and congratulations to 'Hello Newman', all the best in 2008!
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