DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Michael McDowell has often been referred to as a journeyman driver during his long racing career.
But the 36-year-old is probably more at ease with that description than he’s ever been because no matter what went wrong during his career, he never gave up.
Now, he has another title that will follow him until he’s old and gray and no longer driving race cars — Daytona 500 winner.
McDowell drove the Front Row Motorsports No. 34 Ford to victory in the 63rd running of The Great American Race at Daytona Int’l Speedway, earning his first NASCAR Cup Series victory in his 358th race in the series.
“You guys all know, it’s been a tough road for me,” McDowell said. “I’ve had to spend a lot of years grinding it out, but I finally have felt like this last four years have been — just been more competitive and greater opportunities with Front Row and Bob Jenkins. Daytona has been so good to us that we’ve been in the top 10, we’ve been in the top five, we’ve been close.
“The last lap, there’s been times where I’ve made the wrong choice, wrong lane and pushed the wrong guy and it’s just so hard to get in position and to do it and to get my first Cup win at Daytona is just unbelievable.
“I’m just so thankful, thankful for everybody that just has allowed me to do it. It’s not been an easy road and there were lots of years where I was wondering what the heck am I doing and why am I doing it.”
McDowell competed in the Champ Car World Series and in the Grand-Am Sports Car Series before getting the call to drive for Michael Waltrip Racing in 2008 when he made his Cup Series debut.
“You know, from the time I was a young age, I knew I wanted to be a race car driver. I didn’t know what that looked like or where it would be, and so just — my path was really open wheel and road racing and just so happened that I got an opportunity to go stock car racing,” he said. “I’m so glad I did because the path that I was on, it would have been really tough to make it to the top, so I feel like as a kid growing up, I always dreamed of being a race car driver but never thought about being a Daytona 500 champion.”
But it was a long and bumpy road to McDowell hoisting the Harley J. Earl Trophy.
McDowell lost his ride at MWR and bounced from ride to ride, driving for Dusty Whitney, Tommy Baldwin, Phil Parsons and others. Much of that time was spent as a start-and-park driver for Parsons.
He also drover Trevor Bayne’s motorcoach for a time, including when Bayne won the Daytona 500 in 2011.
“When you show up to the race track knowing you’re not going to race, it’s hard,” McDowell said. “I drove Trevor’s coach for a while, and I’ve always driven — I drove my own coach here. I did whatever I could. During those start-and-park days, I was at the shop every day working on the race cars, and so was Phil.
“You all know Phil, but Phil, I can’t tell you how many transmissions he put in race cars before we went to the race track. We all worked on it and we just had to get to the race track one way or another,” McDowell remembered. “I wouldn’t say like there was super lows where I was eating top ramen noodles and scraping to stay alive, but when you show up to the race track and you know that you’re — I don’t even know how to say it. You’re just in the way, taking up space, it’s hard to do that year after year and week after week, and so you’ve got to have a bigger purpose than that. For me it was knowing that I would get an opportunity eventually.”
In 2014, he landed with Leavine Family Racing and had some solid runs with that team through the 2017 season. In 2018, he moved to Front Row Motorsports.
McDowell said winning the Daytona 500 was worth all the years of hard work and uncertainty.
“Yes, absolutely. Even if I didn’t it would still be worth it,” McDowell said Monday morning. “I love this sport. I love being in NASCAR and I love the challenge of it and how difficult it is. The sacrifice it’s worth it because this is what I’ve dreamed about doing and to win, yes, for sure. That’s what it’s all about.
“We all show up on Sunday for one reason, we want to win the race, but even if you didn’t it’s still worth it. This is such a great sport and I’m so thankful to be one of 40. I think it’s so easy to take that for granted how many race car drivers there are in the world and to be one of 40 that gets to start on Sundays, that’s amazing so it’s definitely worth it.”