By Ethan Miller ‘23
Michael McDowell had run 358 Cup Series races prior to Sunday night’s Daytona 500, and he had not won a single one of them. The journeyman driver, who started his Cup career in 2008 with Michael Waltrip Racing, had never finished higher than 4th in a race in the entirety of his 13-year career. McDowell, driving for Front Row Motorsports, delivered his team and owner Bob Jenkins their third win ever while driving the #34 Love’s Travel Stops Mustang.
The 63rd running of the Daytona 500 began at 3 PM Sunday afternoon and quickly became chaotic in the early going, with the first caution flying on lap 4 for Derrick Cope. On lap 14, Aric Almirola got turned around and the ensuing wreck left 16 cars with heavy damage, 10 of which were not able to complete the race. While under red flag conditions to clean up the debris from the crash, lightning moved into the area, followed closely by rain. The rain fell on and off for the rest of the afternoon and into the evening, and NASCAR did not get the track dry until after 8 PM eastern time.
After a rain delay of over 5 and a half hours, the race resumed at approximately 9:15 PM eastern, with defending Cup Series champion, Chase Elliott, leading the race. Not wanting to cause another large crash, the field raced conservatively for much of the night, running single file in a long train along the top of the track. Denny Hamlin won Stage 1 and Stage 2, continuing his dominance at superspeedway tracks. Hamlin led the most laps in the race (98) and was constantly in the top 5. However, in the final pit stop cycle, Hamlin and his Toyota teammates were unable to link up and stay out front of the rest of the pack, resulting in Hamlin being shuffled back to the rear of the field. The field remained in a single file train until 2 laps remained in the race, which was when it all broke loose.
Entering the final lap, Team Penske driver Joey Logano led the pack, with teammate Brad Keselowski and fellow Ford driver Michael McDowell sitting behind him. Austin Dillon jumped out of line in an attempt to pass McDowell and take the league, but was unsuccessful, as Keselowski and Logano blocked him. McDowell, with Chase Elliott giving drafting help, surged up with a big run on the leaders. He attempted to push Keselowski to the lead, but Logano attempted a block, which caused him and Keselowski to crash, collecting Kyle Busch, Austin Cindric, and others in a fiery collision. The crash was severe enough for NASCAR to throw the caution and after studying the scoring loops, NASCAR declared Michael McDowell the winner, with Chase Elliott, Austin Dillon, Kevin Harvick, and Denny Hamlin rounding out the top 5.
McDowell became the 8th driver to score his first career victory in the Daytona 500, and the first since Trevor Bayne in 2011. Bayne was the most recent underdog to win the 500, as he took the top spot at just 20 years old in only his second career Cup Series start.
The 36-year-old Glendale, Arizona driver was jubilant getting out of his car following the win, being quoted as saying, “There’s been lots of years where I was wondering what the heck am I doing and why am I doing it. I always knew if I just kept grinding that one day everything will line up and go right.”
McDowell’s career arc has not been smooth, as he made a huge leap from NASCAR’s 4th tier league (ARCA) to the top one in 2008 and, understandably, struggled mightily. For the next 5 seasons, he was a start-and-park driver, meaning that he would run in the back for a few laps, then leave the race to conserve equipment and save the team money. In 2014, 2015, and 2016, McDowell raced part-time for Leavine Family Racing and did as well as was possible with the equipment. In 2017, he ran full time for the team and scored his highest points finish yet with the team, placing 26th in points. In 2018 he switched to his current team, Front Row Motorsports, and in 2020 recorded a career-high 4 top 10s and placed 23rd in points.
McDowell had the longest streak in the Cup Series without a win at 358 races (second most, only to Michael Waltrip’s 463), and he finally snapped it Sunday night. In doing so, he also won the most prestigious one of them all, the Daytona 500. As McDowell said postrace,
“Not everybody makes it to victory lane and for 14 years I didn’t, so just to be here now is just so amazing,” McDowell said.