February 26, 2017

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (AP) Tony Stewart needed to retire to win the Daytona 500.

From runner-up through DNFs, he failed to win NASCAR's marquee race.

Stewart's NASCAR career ended without a win in 17 tries in the Daytona 500. Turns out he just needed to trade the firesuit for street clothes to bring home the checkered flag.

Just months into retirement, Stewart finally got to celebrate in victory lane.

''If I had known all I had to do was retire, I would have retired 17 years ago if I knew it was what it took to win the race,'' Stewart said.

Kurt Busch helped Stewart fill the biggest void in his illustrious career, driving the No. 41 Ford to victory Sunday for Stewart-Haas Racing. Stewart, the three-time champion who co-owns the team with Gene Haas, retired at the end of last season and watched his four cars race from the pits.

As Busch neared the finish line, Stewart went wild with crew chief Tony Gibson instead of heading home in his usual heartache.

''When you've grown up all your life as a race car driver, you want to win it as a driver,'' Stewart said. ''For every driver, there's a point where you step out of the car and you do something different.''

What could be more different from partying with Gronk in victory lane?

It seemed for a spell like ''The Great American Race'' would be a disaster for Stewart-Haas Racing.

SHR's Danica Patrick and Clint Bowyer were among the 15 drivers collected in wrecks and failed to finish. Kevin Harvick, who won the second segment, also was involved in a wreck and finished 22nd.

Busch, the 2004 Cup champion, kept charging and swept past Kyle Larson on the final lap for his only lead of the race to win the Daytona 500 for the first time. Busch had a whopping 0-fer streak of his own. He had the longest Daytona 500 drought in field, an 0-for-15 mark that started in 2001.

But this was the one for Smoke and The Outlaw.

''I ran this damn race (17) years and couldn't win it, so to finally win it as an owner and to watch Kurt, man, what an awesome job those last couple of laps,'' Stewart said. ''You just really didn't know what was going to happen because guys were trying different things. It's probably the most patient race I've ever watched Kurt Busch run. He definitely deserved that one for sure.''

Stewart gave Busch a big hug, whispered words to him during the lengthy embrace, and patted the driver on his back.

Stewart stepped away from full-time racing at the end of last season, calling it quits after 18 years, 49 wins, three Cup Series championships and more than $125 million in prize money. Out of NASCAR, he never said he was retired and planned to race 70 sprint car events at dirt tracks across the country.

Smoke never won his beloved Indianapolis 500, but had few other holes in his otherwise sterling resume.

Busch and Stewart were so euphoric after the victory, the often tempestuous personalities laughed off how they blew their shot to win the 2007 Daytona 500. Stewart got loose and spun into Busch, wrecking the cars and they failed to finish the race.

Stewart even gently needled Busch over the differences in personality now that he's a full-time owner.

''Be very careful,'' Stewart deadpanned.

''I love your glasses. It makes you look so educated,'' Busch cracked.

''Tony's very patient. And he is astute to the management of the people,'' Busch said. ''There is the self-satisfaction that he gets ... to watch the team perform and put all the puzzle pieces into place.

''We've made our stable that much stronger with Tony Stewart in this role.''

Stewart seemed at peace with retirement at Daytona and joked about the perks of shifting into an ownership role. He could be late for practice, or skip it completely and no one would care. He talked wistfully about how much he would love to run the 24 Hours of Le Mans.

Stewart-Haas won a championship in 2011 with Stewart and another three years later with Harvick. Stewart had bolted Joe Gibbs Racing for the shot at starting his own team with Haas and they ran their first race in 2009.

He never looked as happy as he did Sunday night - a Monster Energy cap on his head and crammed into photo ops with the rest of his team, smiling and laughing as a Daytona 500 champ at last.

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This story has been updated to correct the name of Busch's crew chief to Tony Gibson.

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More AP auto racing: www.racing.ap.org

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