Journeyman Driver McDowell Races To An Upset Victory In The Daytona 500

Michael McDowell celebrates in victory lane after winning the NASCAR Cup Series 63rd Annual Daytona 500 at Daytona International Speedway. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

Michael McDowell celebrates in victory lane after winning the NASCAR Cup Series 63rd Annual Daytona 500 at Daytona International Speedway. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

By Joe Jennings

Journeyman driver Michael McDowell raced to victory in the last lap of the rain-delayed Daytona 500, doing so against a star-studded field of NASCAR’s finest drivers. Running third going into the last circuit around the 2.5-mile oval, the 36-year-old pounced when the two fellow Ford drivers in front of him were eliminated in a fiery crash in turn three.

Those two drivers were leader Joey Logano and teammate Brad Keselowski. Also involved were Kyle Busch, Austin Cindric and Bubba Wallace.

McDowell steered around them for his first NASCAR Cup victory in 358 starts and became the eighth driver to win his first race on the biggest stage, the Daytona 500. NASCAR declared McDowell the winner after checking its track loops to confirm that he held an advantage when the caution lights were turned on.

“I just can’t believe it,” exclaimed McDowell. “I’ve just got to thank God. So many years just grinding it out and hoping for an opportunity like this. I’ve got to thank Love’s Travel Stops, Speedco, Bob Jenkins for giving me this opportunity. I’m so thankful. Such a great way to get a first victory — a Daytona 500. Are you kidding me? I just want to say hi to my wife back home. Happy Valentine’s Day. I know it’s been a tough week. My kids, I love you guys. I wish they could be here with me to celebrate. Maybe NASCAR will send a plane to bring them down here, but we’re the Daytona 500 champions. Thank you Doug Yates, Ford. We had our Ford partners at the end and they all crashed, but luckily I was able to make it through. I’m just so thankful. God is good.”

Addressing the ending, he added, “We had a good plan coming to the white and unfortunately Joey and Brad got together and the hole opened up. I just can’t believe it. I’m so thankful. It’s amazing.”

The 63rd edition of the Great American Race didn’t end until after midnight ET due to a six-hour rain delay that soaked the track. The race was red flagged after 16 laps when the storm, accompanied by thunder and lightning, started.

Ford chalked up its 705th all-time in NASCAR Cup competition.

For Bob Jenkins and his Front Row Motorsports team, the victory marked its third series win.

Driving the Love’s Truck Stop Ford Mustang, McDowell ran consistently near the front of the field for the 200 laps but was still flying under the radar as fans in the stands and the national television audience focused on the likes of Denny Hamlin, Logano, Keselowski, Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch throughout the long race.

Until the final round of crucial pit stops with some 30 laps to go, Hamlin had dominated the race, leading 98 laps. Once the Ford and Chevrolet manufacturers teamed up, Hamlin and two other Toyota teams were no match for them.

Logano powered to the front and no one could overtake him until the crash at the end. He was scored 12th with Keselowski and Busch immediately behind him.

Chase Elliott finished a close second followed by Austin Dillon, Harvick and Hamlin. Rounding out the top-10 were Chevrolet drivers Ryan Preece, Ross Chastain, Jamie McMurray, Corey LaJoie and Kyle Larson.

With 30,000 fans in attendance, the pre-race pageantry was somewhat different with the fans not allowed on the track. Rain had beset the area throughout the week, which had turned the infield area into a swamp.

The USAF Thunderbirds were on hand for the colorful flyover, a tradition that is welcomed by everyone.

The command to start the race was given by entertainer Pit Bull, who has become part owner of the new team driven by Daniel Suarez.

Another new team co-owned by NBA legend Michael Jordan and three-time winner Hamlin received the bulk of the pre-race attention with Wallace the driver. Their Toyota took three tries to pass the pre-race technical inspection, forcing them to start in the rear of the field and the loss of one crew member for the race.

The 40-car field took the green flag at 3:07 p.m. and three laps into the race everyone present had the opportunity to raise three fingers as a tribute to NASCAR legend Dale Earnhardt, who lost his life on the last lap of the Great American Race 20 years ago.

Moments later, the first yellow flag came out within minutes when 1990 winner Derrike Cope and Wallace tangled. For Cope, the raced marked the end of his Cup career. Wallace was able to continue but Cope’s day was over.

The field settled in when racing resumed but the run was short-lived when frontrunners Aric Almirola and rookie Christopher Bell came together, triggering a 16-car crash. With the grassy areas of the track swampy, the crashing cars threw up tons of mud and causing some entrants to get stuck.

Those caught up in the melee included pole winner Alex Bowman and front-row companion William Byron, Suarez, Ryan Blaney, Ryan Newman and Kurt Busch.

As if on cue, the skies parted and the predicted rain accompanied by lightning deluged the area, stopping the race for most of the day.

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