THE LEGENDS were all there. They cruised down pit road at Daytona International Speedway just as they did in their youth, only now they were in golf carts motoring past the 43 stock cars that were parked in two lines before the 50th running of the Great American Race. There was Bobby Allison's cart chasing after Mario Andretti's. There was A.J. Foyt, still looking as tough and as back-alley bad as ever, neck and neck with Cale Yarborough. And there was Richard Petty eyeing his former foes Buddy Baker and Junior Johnson. Standing high above these old-school stars, up in the topmost reaches of the track, was another silver-haired racing icon, but one who, in a quarter century of competing in NASCAR's grandest race, had never done what they had: win.
Roger Penske, the owner of Penske Racing, looked down at the prerace activities from the spotters' stand above the press box. Earlier in the day he had joked with rival owner Rick Hendrick that he wanted a Hendrick Motorsports hat because that was his best chance to be affiliated with a winner as the sport celebrated the 500's golden anniversary. "Rick has been the dominant owner in this sport for the last few years, and we knew that his drivers and the Joe Gibbs Racing drivers would be tough to beat," said Penske, whose cars have won a record 14 Indianapolis 500s over the last 36 years. "I've been coming here so long and getting passed so often that sometimes it's hard to be optimistic."
At the start of the final lap on Sunday, Penske, who would turn 71 three days after the race, appeared headed for more heartbreak. With Hendrick's dream lineup of drivers unexpectedly out of contention—Dale Earnhardt Jr., who had run near the front all day, was in the lead pack but struggling with worn-out tires; Jeff Gordon had suffered a mechanical failure; and pole sitter Jimmie Johnson had crashed, as had Casey Mears—Gibbs's Tony Stewart charged into Turn 2 with the lead. Penske's Ryan Newman and Kurt Busch ran second and third, respectively, but the Gibbs team had thoroughly dominated the race, leading 134 of the first 199 laps. As Stewart pounded the gas, he was less than two miles from his first Daytona 500 victory.
But then, exiting the turn, Stewart made what will go down as one of the biggest mistakes of his stock car career: He dived to the low line, hoping to get drafting help from trailing teammate Kyle Busch. That opened up the high lane for Newman and Kurt Busch. Seizing the unexpected opportunity, Kurt Busch rammed into the back of his teammate down the backstretch, giving the number 12 car a shove so powerful that it propelled Newman past Stewart, who faded quickly because Kyle Busch was still too far back to push him. As the sellout crowd of 190,000 thundered, Kurt Busch sped ahead of Stewart heading into Turn 3. The two Penske teammates, who'd combined to lead only 16 laps of the race, darted through the final turn locked together bumper-to-bumper. Newman's Dodge Charger crossed the finish line first, ahead of his teammate, prompting the normally buttoned-down Penske to deliver a delirious roar into his radio headset.
"We've definitely had our ups and downs as a team," said Newman, who snapped an 81-race winless streak. "I personally know how hard it is to win a race, but hopefully we'll have some more celebrations this year in Victory Lane."
That will be a tall task, which even Penske, who has never won a championship in his 25 years of Cup racing, recognizes. The 30-year-old Newman hasn't qualified for the Chase for the past two seasons. Further, despite off-season improvements by all the Dodge teams in horsepower and aerodynamics (six of the top eight finishers on Sunday were Dodges), they, along with the Chevy and Ford outfits, face a powerful new force on the circuit: Toyota, the world's largest and richest auto manufacturer. The most significant story of Speedweeks—one that will have a major impact on the 2008 season—wasn't Newman's victory; it was the emergence of the Toyota-powered Joe Gibbs Racing team. Thanks to an immensely productive off-season, JGR now has what it lacked last year: the horsepower to run wheel-to-wheel every week with the Hendrick cars, winners of 18 of the 36 races in '07 and the last two championships.
"I don't think anybody has anything on us," says Kyle Busch of the JGR drivers, who won a qualifying race at Daytona last Thursday ( Denny Hamlin) and the Nationwide Series race on Saturday ( Stewart), and were in control of virtually all but one lap of the 500 on Sunday. "Time will tell, but I like our chances now that we're with Toyota."
Until November, Gibbs had been aligned with Chevrolet since 1992, the team's first year in NASCAR. But in 2007 Gibbs officials came to believe that, in terms of manufacturer support, they had fallen to third in the Chevrolet pecking order behind Hendrick and Richard Childress Racing.
When Gibbs's contract with Chevy expired at the end of last season, J.D. Gibbs, the president of JGR, called each of his drivers and asked them if they'd like to switch to Toyota. They all had the same response: No.
You couldn't blame them: In '07, its maiden season on the Cup circuit, Toyota supported three teams, and each one floundered. Collectively, the Toyota drivers failed to qualify for 79 races, and in the final standings only Dave Blaney, who wound up 31st in points, finished in the top 35. But there was an explanation for Toyota's poor showing: Its teams were either startups ( Michael Waltrip Racing and Red Bull) or second-tier operations (Bill Davis Racing). So when Gibbs—winner of three titles—said it was willing to sever its relationship with Chevy, Toyota officials promised two things to JGR that Chevy couldn't offer: Gibbs would be their flagship team, and Toyota would supply more engineering and mechanical support to JGR than any other team received from its manufacturer.