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Newman is aided by bumper car

Times Staff Writer

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. - Whether Tony Stewart took a swing at Kurt Busch at the start of Daytona 500 preparations still isn’t clear, but this much is known: Busch got in the last shove, much to Ryan Newman’s utter delight.

Newman stormed past Stewart on the last lap Sunday to win the 50th running of the “Great American Race” after Busch ran up to the rear bumper of Newman’s Dodge and, aerodynamically speaking, pushed him to the lead in front of a sold-out crowd of 190,000.

The win was Newman’s first after a dry spell of more than two years and 81 races.

The South Bend, Ind., native also gave longtime team owner Roger Penske his first victory at Daytona International Speedway.

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“Kurt came up behind me and just gave me the push from heaven,” Newman said, noting that Busch didn’t change lanes in search of victory himself, which might have triggered a wreck.

"[Kurt] chose to be a teammate, and that’s the most honorable thing he could do,” Newman said.

But the maneuver was a bitter setback for Stewart, a two-time Cup champion who finished third behind Busch and has yet to win the Daytona 500 after 10 tries.

The finish was “probably one of the most disappointing moments in my racing career,” Stewart said. “It breaks your heart.”

The 500 is NASCAR’s most prestigious race and its season opener, so teams arrive nearly two weeks early to begin preparations.

On the first day of practice, Stewart and Busch crashed, and an angry Busch then banged his Dodge into Stewart’s Toyota Camry as they headed toward the garage.

NASCAR officials promptly called them into a meeting, during which Stewart reportedly swung at Busch. They were put on probation for six races starting with the 500.

Busch, asked Sunday whether he felt any satisfaction with helping deprive Stewart of victory, said he was only “doing what Kurt Busch needed to do to win the race.”

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Then, after Busch and Stewart finished their post-race news conference, the two shook hands.

Stewart was leading Newman and Busch as they started the final lap. But on the back straightaway, as the field divided into two freight train-like packs, Stewart moved left to the low side of the track, where he expected to get a push from Kyle Busch, Kurt’s brother and Stewart’s teammate at Joe Gibbs Racing.

The move backfired, as Newman and Busch drove past Stewart to the checkered flag on the 2.5-mile, high-banked oval.

“I just made the wrong decision on the backstretch,” said Stewart, who had said he would let reporters cut his longish hair if he won. “I thought we were going to have a fun hair-cutting party in here tonight with you guys.”

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Newman said his car “actually wasn’t ideal out front. I was on the loose side for most of the runs. The last run we tightened it up, got it right.”

The 500 victory -- with its $1.5-million prize -- was the 13th Cup win for Newman, 30, and his first since he won at New Hampshire in September 2005.

Like many racers, Newman cut his teeth racing midget and sprint cars before moving up to stock-car racing with Penske in 2000. Unlike many racers, he also has a college degree in vehicle structural engineering.

Penske has won the Indianapolis 500 on 14 occasions, but victory at Daytona had eluded him.

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“I’ve been here almost 30 years trying to get into victory circle,” Penske said. "[Newman] drove a masterful race, but I thank Kurt too. He pushed us to victory.”

Kyle Busch, who moved to Gibbs this season after being released from Hendrick Motorsports, had the strongest car most of the day. He led the most laps, 86, and appeared ready to reach the lead again with Stewart.

“Just frustrating to come home fourth,” Busch said. “Those guys couldn’t keep up with us, but there were all those cautions at the end that propelled them forward enough in order to get them ahead.”

Indeed, the race -- which began in the late afternoon and ended under the lights -- unfolded much as it did a year ago, with a quick, accident-free pace for 150 laps and then a frenetic, crash-filled finish.

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In one of the wrecks, reigning Cup champion and former 500 winner Jimmie Johnson, who started on the pole, tangled with Denny Hamlin and Martin Truex Jr. with 23 laps left.

Johnson’s problems were one reason Hendrick’s team wasn’t a major contender, as many had predicted.

Only its newest member, Dale Earnhardt Jr., hovered near the front. He led 12 laps in his No. 88 Chevy but spent most of the race behind the leaders.

“We obviously didn’t have enough car to stay there,” he said. But Earnhardt, who won two preliminary races last week, said, “I have enjoyed this so much. We are going to build on this.”

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His two Hendrick teammates, Casey Mears of Bakersfield and Jeff Gordon, finished 35th and 39th, respectively.

Mears hit the wall late in the race, and Gordon, a three-time 500 winner, had suspension problems.

Defending race winner Kevin Harvick, also of Bakersfield, struggled throughout the race but finished 14th in his Richard Childress Racing Chevy.

The race featured the Daytona debut of NASCAR’s new Car of Tomorrow, which was designed to improve driver safety and foster closer racing. The car was partially phased in last year and is now mandatory.

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But Daytona is one of two speedways where NASCAR mandates the use of carburetor-restrictor plates to keep speeds limited to about 200 mph for safety. (The other is in Talladega, Ala.) A side effect is that the cars stay bunched in packs.

Drivers said a better gauge of the car’s performance will come Sunday at their second race, the Auto Club 500 at the two-mile California Speedway in Fontana.

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james.peltz@latimes.com

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