Column By: HOLLY CAIN / NASCAR – DAYTONA BEACH, FL – More than an hour after Michael McDowell had officially claimed the most iconic winner’s trophy in NASCAR with a last lap push to the Daytona 500 checkered flag, the 36-year old Phoenix native was still insisting with a smile and a shake of his head that it was all “unbelievable”.
It was a phrase he used over and over in the celebratory moments after his life-changing win. When he woke up Monday morning, he could more fully embrace the impact of his career-making night.
“It’s been a range of emotions, believe it or not,” McDowell said Monday morning from Daytona. “From finding out that we won the Daytona 500 just the shear excitement that you have from that to, for me, it’s been like a very emotional and humble experience where just realizing like, ‘Man, we just won the biggest race in the world’.
“So many people have done so much to help me get here that it can be overwhelming, and I’m just thankful. I’m super thankful. I really am.”
In a perfectly executed nod to the Valentine’s Day race date, he drove the No. 34 Front Row Motorsports Ford – sponsored by Love’s Travel Stops – to his first career NASCAR Cup Series victory in the biggest race of the year.
It’s the third time in the last five years, the Daytona 500 race winner led only the final lap. And McDowell is the eighth driver – to score his very first career NASCAR Cup Series win in the Great American Race. It is McDowell’s first win in 358 starts.
It was a long day – the race extended by a five-hour rain break. But it was also a vital season-opening event for NASCAR, which has led the way nationally in returning to competition among the COVID-19 pandemic. Big names, important milestones and the show of great promise characterized the series’ most iconic race.
Bubba Wallace led Lap 129 becoming the first African-American driver to lead in the Daytona 500. Equally as important to the 27-year-old Alabama native ran up front for much of the race and kept his No. 23 23XI Racing Toyota – co-owned by basketball legend Michael Jordan and current driver Denny Hamlin – absolutely in contention for a shot at the big trophy until needing an unexpected late race pit stop. He finished 17th after being collected in a large last-lap accident.
Mexican Daniel Suarez, who debuted the No. 99 Trackhouse Racing Chevrolet, was a victim of one of Daytona’s notorious “Big Ones” – a 16-car chain-reaction accident only 14 laps into the race. But there is plenty of optimism for this new team. World-renowned singer Pitbull, who gave the starting command, is co-owner in the effort and has been active in drawing new eyes to the sport.
Two-time defending race winner Denny Hamlin, who co-owns Wallace’s Toyota with Jordan, finished fifth – four positions short of earning a record three straight Daytona 500 wins. His No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota led a race best 96 laps – nearly half the 200-lap race – but wasn’t able to regain the lead after a final pit stop in the closing laps.
“I was able to gain some positions,” Hamlin said of his last stop. “I think I was 12th and everybody was running single file, so it handcuffed me. I couldn’t really do anything. Dominant car, just a dominant car.”
This year, the victory was instead earned by the longshot. McDowell’s pre-race odds at hoisting the trophy were 100-to-1.
A well-liked, perpetual “good guy” McDowell’s work may not have been as appreciated by the odds-makers but it was so popular among his own competitors. So many were congratulating him in their own post-race interviews, a few doing so outside the track’s infield care center following that last lap crash.
As McDowell shared the story of his work in the final seconds of the race – a pass that will forever hold him high in NASCAR laurels – he spoke with an unmistakable high energy. It was the honest emotion you’d expect of a life-changing happy ending.
“Brad [Keselowski] and I pulled down with a run and next thing you know, Brad was turning right,” McDowell said, recounting the last lap with a bit of disbelief. “Joey [Logano] was turning left and I went right through the middle of it and I looked in my mirror and I saw Chase Elliott with a run and I went up there and blocked him as fast as I could and we made a little bit of contact and I didn’t see anything else from that point. It’s just kind of a blur from there.”
The journey for this opportunity, however, is what propelled McDowell off-track and on-track. He has been a fixture in the garage for more than a decade intent to prove himself and earn a fulltime job. In the beginning it meant driving other drivers’ motorcoaches to races or steering underfunded start-and-park cars.
The goal of winning the Daytona 500, however, was always a motivator and on Sunday, McDowell proved what perseverance and belief can produce.
“Don’t give up,” McDowell said, of what he hopes his triumph can teach others. “I think that’s what it’s all about is just not giving up and just keep fighting hard.
“I think that’s not just the moral of my NASCAR journey, but that’s the moral of everyday life. That’s the moral of our race team and we just keep fighting hard and you just never know what what’s possible.”