The perfect running mate

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First, he graciously goes along with team owner Roger Penske's idea to give three-time IndyCar champion and 2006 Indianapolis 500 winner Sam Hornish Jr. the NASCAR points Busch earned last year to guarantee he would be in the Daytona 500 -- and the first five races of the 2008 season.

That meant Busch, who finished seventh in the standings last year, would have to race his way into the Daytona 500 or fall back and use the champions provisional to make the race from his 2004 Cup title.

Busch, who started last in the 43-car field, looked like he had little chance of having an impact in the 50th Daytona 500.

Then, he proved once again what a great team player he is when he pushed teammate Ryan Newman to victory on the last lap of Sunday night's Daytona 500.

Without Busch's help, Tony Stewart would have gone to victory lane.

Hey, come to think of it, Kurt Busch's move may have been motivated by his fiery feud with Stewart, who apparently punched Busch in the head on Feb. 8 after the two were involved in a major tiff following a crash in practice.

When NASCAR officials told both drivers to "steer clear of each other," Busch made sure of that when he steered his Dodge behind Newman's car, pushing it past Stewart's Toyota on the final lap of the race.

Ah, revenge is sweet, as Busch was able to achieve payback on Stewart.

But seriously, Busch's role in Newman's victory was another example of how teamwork can pay off with the ultimate victory in NASCAR.

"We started this season with all three drivers, all three crew chiefs and engineering together and said we have to make this one effort," Penske said. "When we moved the points to Sam Hornish, there was a lot of discussion to that. Kurt and Ryan do different things; but at the race track, the three drivers get together after the race. Ryan's relationship with Kurt has made a big difference, too. The fact he could make a big difference in that victory is special to him, too.

"I've always said we win as a team and lose as a team."

Newman called Busch's help on the last lap, "the push from heaven."

"The leader was a sitting duck on the restart," Newman said of Stewart. "I didn't think the 31 (Jeff Burton) had the greatest car all day. When I pushed Tony through turns 1 and 2, I was pushing him as hard as I could.

"Then Kurt came up from behind me and gave me the push from heaven. My dad was spotting for me, and I could hear the tears dripping all the way down the backstretch -- that's how emotional he was. Kurt gave me a really great [push].

"I got that tingly feeling and you only get that from certain things."

With Penske Racing finishing 1-2 in the biggest race of the year, and Hornish taking 15th after running as high as fourth in the Daytona 500, this could be a team ready to excel throughout the 2008 Sprint Cup schedule.

Before he came to Penske Racing following the 2005 season, Busch was often criticized at the five-driver team owned by Jack Roush for not being a good teammate. He got along with Matt Kenseth, but that was about it.

When Roush unceremoniously dumped him before the Phoenix race in November 2005 for a highly publicized run-in with one of Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio's deputies, Busch was a wounded soul.

But his new team owner, Penske, gave Busch his full support and boosted his spirits. Busch, however, did not make the Chase in 2006, finishing 16th in the standings.

In 2007, Busch rebounded to finish seventh in the standings and won two Cup races, while Newman failed to make The Chase.

With the top 35 drivers guaranteed starting positions in each Cup race, Penske realized the best way to guarantee newcomer Hornish and his sponsor, Mobil-1, would be to swap points with Busch.

To some drivers, that would be a tremendous blow to their ego. After all, they compete on a relentless schedule that lasts nearly 11 months, counting preseason testing.

But Busch recalled the unique way Penske persuaded him to give up his points.

"Honestly, he has this approach, such as when we wanted to switch our points, he asks you a question like, 'Hey, would this be a good idea if we swap the points?'" Busch explained. "It's almost like he's got his mind made up already. And you just know when he speaks to you on that, what his direction is.

"So case in point, the Daytona 500 is very special and he wants to win this race. So I'm happy that I pushed a teammate to this race."

Even the mild-mannered Hornish, perhaps this generation's greatest IndyCar driver, was uncharacteristically exuberant over the overall team effort at Penske Racing on Sunday.

"I'm stoked," Hornish said. "This is a big puzzle that we're trying to put together here and put all of the right people in the right places. We're just moving forward and trying to do the best that we can. I'm about as happy as I can be with a 15th-place finish. I want to win every time we go out there, not to be disappointed about it. We came in with a goal that if we were in the top-20, we would be happy with that. Not only were we able to do that, but we were able to see one of our teammates win. So that was great."

"As far as the team as a whole, to have two veteran drivers finish first and second in the Daytona 500 and a rookie driver finish in the top-15 -- I feel pretty happy about that and I know that Roger (Penske) does, too."

Newman has a much better relationship with Busch as his teammate than his predecessor, Rusty Wallace.

When those two were at Penske Racing, they seldom spoke to each other and when they talked about one another, it was usually in disparaging tones.

But Newman and Busch understand each other and try to push one another for bigger things.

"I was looking forward to Kurt coming down to victory lane because you can' t do it without a team and you can't do it without teammates sometimes," Newman said. "Everything aligned itself so Kurt could help push me.

"I'm just grateful for that."

Team Penske appeared to be a team of unity after their outstanding Daytona 500, but the sage old team owner realizes that when the series heads to California Speedway for next Sunday's 500-mile contest, last week's success will be old news.

"Next week at California, just because we won the Daytona 500 doesn't mean we are going to start off with a half-lap lead on the field," Penske said.