DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — The 63rd running of the Daytona 500 at Daytona Int’l Speedway saw fire and it saw rain, and at the end of 500 miles Michael McDowell saw a sunny day that may never end.
After 14 years and 358 NASCAR Cup Series starts, McDowell earned his first series victory and it came in the sport’s biggest race after he waited out a five-hour, 40-minute and 29-second rain delay and dodged a fiery last-lap crash that included several of his Ford teammates.
“I just can’t believe this,” said a breathless McDowell. “I’ve just got to thank God. I’ve spent so many years just grinding it out and hoping for an opportunity like this. Bob Jenkins gave me this opportunity and I’m just so thankful. This is such a great way to get a first victory — in the Daytona 500. … 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.
“We won the Daytona 500! Are you kidding me? Unbelievable!”
It was the third time in five years that the Daytona 500 winner led only the final lap. McDowell also became the eighth driver to earn his first Cup Series victory in the Daytona 500. It was his 10th start in The Great American Race.
McDowell’s unlikely triumph was also the first in the Daytona 500 for Front Row Motorsports and team owner Bob Jenkins. Crew chief Drew Blickensderfer earned his second Daytona 500 triumph, having led Matt Kenseth to victory in 2009. Ford won the race for the 16th time.
The 36-year-old McDowell started the race 17th and dodged a wild 16-car accident on lap 14, which led to a red flag. While the track was being cleaned up, rain moved in and racing didn’t resume until shortly after 9 p.m.
Following the restart, McDowell logged laps around the 2.5-mile superspeedway while three-time Daytona 500 winner Denny Hamlin, who was looking for his third straight 500 victory, and Joey Logano led the majority of the laps. Hamlin led 98 of the 200 laps and won the first two stages.
McDowell was running third on the final lap after pushing Brad Keselowski to the runner-up position as the white flag waved with Keselowski’s Team Penske teammate Joey Logano out front.
Pushed by McDowell, Keselowski ultimately tagged Logano into a spin in the turn-three banking. With many cars from the lead pack collected in the accident, Keselowski’s Ford was hit in the rear by Kyle Busch’s Toyota. The impact dislodged the fuel cell from the No. 2 car and a fireball erupted as the cars ground along the turn-three wall.
While seven cars were involved in the accident, Chase Elliott and Austin Dillon took McDowell three-wide in turn four coming back to the tri-oval in an effort to steal the victory before the caution lights illuminated, freezing the field.
NASCAR reviewed the scoring at the moment of caution and McDowell was declared the winner.
“Brad and I pulled down with a run and next thing you know Brad was turning right. Joey was turning left and I went right through the middle of it,” McDowell explained. “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.”
McDowell’s 358 starts before his first victory are the second most in series history. Michael Waltrip won the 2001 Daytona 500 in his 463rd start.
“Just so many times I’ve felt like, ‘Oh, this is it,’” McDowell said. “When I lost the ride at LFR (Levine Family Racing) driving the 95, I wondered, ‘Man, where am I going to go?’ I had finally started to run full time and was having decent runs and feeling like I was going somewhere and that’s gone. I have had so many times like that.
“For Bob Jenkins to give me a shot in the 34 car with Love’s — and Love’s has been with Front Row for over nine years now and they are just the backbone of our organization,” McDowell added. “Even though Front Row has been to victory lane with David Ragan and with Chris Buescher, the Love’s car has never been to victory lane with them. It’s so cool to finally get them into victory lane because they’ve been such an integral part of the growth of Front Row.”
Elliott was scored as the runner-up, followed by Dillon, Kevin Harvick and Hamlin.
“I think it was close,” Elliott said. “I kind of got next to him, then I saw the lights came on and I knew it was over right then. We had a fast car. We weren’t as good as I thought we were on Thursday (in the qualifying race), but I thought we did a really good job of executing and staying out of trouble.”
McDowell, much like the entire Front Row Motorsports team, is accustomed to the role of underdog. He came to NASCAR racing after a brief career in open-wheel racing and bounced from one ride to another. He even drove 2011 Daytona 500 winner Trevor Bayne’s motorcoach for a time.
“Don’t give up. I think that’s what it’s all about is just not giving up and just keep fighting hard,” McDowell said. “I think that 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’s possible.”