Winless in 377 NASCAR career starts, perennial “underdog” Michael McDowell pulled off the upset of the last decade by winning the 63rd annual Daytona 500 Sunday.
The likeable 36-year-old veteran of over 10 years of NASCAR competition was running a close third behind race leaders Joey Logano and Penske teammate Brad Keselowski on the dramatic final lap of the “Great American Race.” Normally McDowell, driving the No. 34 Ford Mustang GT for the underfunded Front Row Motorsports team, would be content to finish third behind the two more powerful and race dominant Team Penske Mustang GT’s of race leader Logano and second place Keselowski. But, circumstances at the finish would prove to be entirely different than perhaps 99 percent of the fans and announcers thought on this stormy evening in Daytona.
Violent thunderstorms halted the action and forced several hours of track drying before the race was restarted. McDowell’s Loves Fuel Centers sponsored yellow Mustang had slipped through with minimal damage in a massive 16-car wreck in the first quarter of the 500-mile endurance classic. That huge wreck eliminated several top contenders for the rest of the tense and close race.
McDowell skillfully guided his taped-up Mustang through several other close calls to emerge in third place on that critical fourth and final turn heading to the coveted checkered flag. That’s when the “seas parted” and presented the Arizona native with the chance he’d been waiting for a lifetime.
As Logano headed for what appeared to be certain victory, his Penske teammate Keselowski dove to the inside to try to pull off his first Daytona 500 win. McDowell was drafting close behind in Keselowski’s tire prints. Keselowski’s car slightly touched the rear of Logano’s sending both cars into a wild spin, setting off another fiery, multi-car wreck that eliminated most of the remaining pre-race favorites.
Only five cars made it through the frightening turn four crash. McDowell’s battered Mustang was slightly ahead of 2021 NASCAR Cup Series Champion Chase Elliott, Austin Dillon, Kevin Harvick and the winner of the last two Daytona 500s, Denny Hamlin. Taking advantage of the outside lane, McDowell skillfully out-dueled Elliott and Dillon as Harvick and Hamlin found their paths to victory blocked coming to the checkered flag. McDowell was declared the race winner by NASCAR officials who verified that he was the leader when the race-ending caution flag came out.
The upset was complete! As in the popular movie “Hoosiers,” the “underdog” had triumphed over great odds. It was a true “Cinderella” story for this quiet, likeable, hard-driving Christian who was driving for an “underdog” race team which had only tasted NASCAR victory twice in its long tenure in the sport. Everyone loves to see the “underdog” come out on top — it’s the American way! Such was the case for winner Michael McDowell on this history-making night in the 63rd edition of the “Great American Race” at the Daytona International Speedway.
“I just can’t believe it!” McDowell said. “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, Ford and Bob Jenkins (team owner) for giving me this opportunity. I’m so thankful. Such a great way to get a first victory. A Daytona 500 win — are you kidding me? I just want to say hi to my wife (and kids) back home. Happy Valentine’s Day! We’re Daytona 500 champions!”
Regarding the critical last turn incident, McDowell related his thoughts: “We had our Ford partners together there at the end. We had a good plan coming to the white flag, and unfortunately Joey (Logano) and Brad (Keselowski) got together and the hole opened up. I’m just so thankful. ... It’s amazing! I just can’t believe I won the Daytona 500! God is good!”
The second race of the NASCAR Cup Series takes place this weekend at the Daytona International Speedway Road Course.