NASCAR Cup Series

Michael McDowell gets by last-lap wreck, wins rain-delayed Daytona 500 and first Cup race

14 Mins read
Credit: Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images

After fourteen years and 358 NASCAR Cup Series starts, Michael McDowell has finally won a Cup race. Not just any race either: it was the season-opening Daytona 500.

In a race that was plagued by giant wrecks and a lengthy rain delay that lasted over five hours, McDowell caught race leaders Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano on the final lap, where the two made contact and triggered a massive crash. McDowell would slip by and hold the lead as the caution came out to score his maiden Cup victory and Front Row Motorsports‘ third.

Alex Bowman won the pole on Wednesday and averted a crisis involving his engine during the Duels the following day, but fellow front-row qualifier and Hendrick Motorsports team-mate William Byron was not as lucky as a crash in his Duel forced him into a backup car and relegation to the rear. Nine other drivers also went to the back: Brad Keselowski, Chase Briscoe, Kaz Grala, Anthony Alfredo, Cole Custer, and Ross Chastain all switched to backups, Erik Jones had an engine change, and Bubba Wallace failed pre-race inspection twice.

Stage #1

First 15 laps

Bowman and Kevin Harvick led the two lines to begin the race. After three laps, Derrike Cope hit the wall after making contact with Wallace (via a squeeze from Byron) and suffering a flat tyre, quickly ending his final NASCAR race. Ironically, the incident came while the industry was paying tribute to the late Dale Earnhardt on the twenty-year anniversary of his death in the 500, a race that Cope won in 1990 after Earnhardt blew a tyre of his own on the final lap. Harvick, who replaced Earnhardt in the #3 (which was renumbered to #29) for the rest of 2001 and onward, would fittingly lead lap three.

Stewart-Haas Racing team-mates Harvick and Duel #1 winner Aric Almirola led the field to the restart on lap eight. The two joined up on the inside as fellow Ford Ryan Newman led the outside.

On lap 14, the infamous Big One struck in turn three when Almirola was turned after receiving too strong of a push from Christopher Bell, who in turn was getting a draft from Joe Gibbs Racing team-mate Kyle Busch. Almirola went up into Bowman, both of whom hit the wall and caught Daniel Suárez and Kurt Busch, the latter clipping Newman.

“We were just getting pushed too hard too early,” Almirola said. His race ended with a thirty-fourth. “It’s a long, long race. Man, we were in a fine position, just sitting there riding around in the top two, three and the 20 just came with a big run and hit me really hard in a bad spot and it turned me to the right and tore up our race car and ended our Daytona 500 way too early.”

Bowman explained, “It looks like the #10 (Almirola) kind of got turned sideways there and I was the guy that got ran into. Bummer. I hate it for Ally (Financial, sponsor). Obviously, we had a really fast Camaro. The Chevrolets were working good together; hopefully a Chevy still ends up in Victory Lane.”

Alfredo, Blaney, Chris Buescher, Matt DiBenedetto, Erik Jones, Jamie McMurray, David Ragan, Tyler Reddick, and Martin Truex Jr. were also collected. Byron squeezed between Truex and Blaney but was hit from behind by a sideways Reddick, briefly sending him airbourne.

“It’s just unfortunate to have a bunch of tore up race cars that early,” Ragan commented. He finished thirty-third in his one-off start for Front Row. “I’ve never met a driver that said, ‘Hey, I’m gonna start this 500-mile race and just be super aggressive.’ We all talk about give and take and making it to the end, but it seems nobody does that once they get out there. It’s frustrating that everybody is pushing and shoving and I just saw the #48 get turned and whenever someone wrecks in the top five or six it tears up a lot of cars.”

“I think some of these guys thought we were in an eNASCAR iRacing Pro Invitational Series event… Unfortunately, there are no fast repairs in real-life,” Ragan’s FRM team-mate Alfredo sardonically tweeted, referring to the sim racing league established during the season hiatus last spring. He was twenty-eighth at the time of the delay.

“Well, I needed a few hours to calm down and process what happened,” Suárez tweeted later in the evening. He finished his first race for the new Trackhouse Racing Team, whose owners Pitbull and Justin Marks were in attendance (Pitbull also served as the grand marshal), in thirty-first. “Sadly, we got caught in someone else’s mistake early on, and even though I made it through the wreck, my car got killed on the grass. So frustrating, such a shame… But at the same time I’m very excited for what is coming this year. I’m so fortunate to be part of such an amazing team that gave me a very fast #99 iFLY Chevy Camaro. We’ll bring another fast race car next weekend and go back to battle”.

Credit: Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images

Rain delay

Whether or not the wreck would have generated a red flag for cleanup was disregarded as the weather decided to do so itself, with a lightning strike near the track and eventual rain forcing NASCAR to halt the race. It is the second straight year that the 500 was delayed by rain and the sixth Fox-aired 500 to suffer such a fate, joining 2003, 2009, 2012, and 2014, and continued a stretch of weather-related frustrations in the weekend; the second 500 practice on Saturday morning was cut short after just three minutes, while Xfinity Series qualifying and the final Cup practice were cancelled entirely.

The freshly-retired Cup great Jimmie Johnson remarked, “There’s plenty I’m going to miss about racing in NASCAR… rain delays are not one of them.”

NASCAR battled with Mother Nature throughout the afternoon, sending out the fleet of Air Titans whenever there was a break in the rain, only for the inclement weather to return. During the break, Ross Chastain, Briscoe, and Reddick left the track to get food. Chastain, who recently moved up to full-time Cup racing with Chip Ganassi Racing, participated in some sponsor activation by ordering McDonald’s for his crew.

On social media, among the various fan and media opinions were calls to begin races at noon Eastern time rather than the usual 3 PM. The start times, dictated by the networks, had a tendency to overlap with rainy afternoon weather, resulting in numerous red flags for rain during the 2020 season.

After five hours and forty minutes of waiting, the rain finally let up and engines were fired at 9 PM. Unfortunately for former driver-turned-Fox commentator Clint Bowyer, his suggestion was not realised.

“Hey, I have an idea,” Bowyer began on Twitter. “15 laps in….no harm no foul. They all have backups already here. If it rains out let em have a choice to get them out and start at tail tomorrow. There I said it.”

“Someone pick up Clint from the bar. He needs a ride,” two-time defending 500 winner Denny Hamlin responded.

Restart

When the red flag was lifted, the teams for cars involved in wrecks quickly got to work. Bell was the first off pit road ahead of Ky. Busch. Buescher, DiBenedetto, and Alfredo were unable to repair their cars in time before the six-minute Damaged Vehicle Policy expired, ending their nights. 500 newcomer Grala and new owner/driver B.J. McLeod led the field under caution as track workers finalised drying efforts before hitting pit road along with Bell and Busch. Joey Logano suffered a penalty for making his stop while the pits were closed.

The top four pitting placed the front row spots in Chase Elliott and Austin Dillon‘s hands when the race finally resumed on lap 30. Dillon cleared Elliott in turn three. After two laps of Dillon leading, Hamlin performed three-wide overtake between him and Custer, the latter eventually shuffling back. When the field reorganised into double file, the outside line with Hamlin, Keselowski, and Wallace pushed ahead.

Byron lost his left rear quarter panel, causing the rear bumper to detach and requiring him to pit. When he returned to the track, he was three laps down. On lap 38, Quin Houff ran over Byron’s quarter panel and blew a tyre in turn one, with Briscoe also going around as a result. Byron was penalised for dropping debris.

Hamlin and Keselowski led the field to the lap 43 restart. Wallace pushed Keselowski ahead on the inside before making his move to connect with his Toyota brethren Hamlin. While Wallace’s move did not keep him in second for long as the outside quickly overwhelmed the inside, Keselowski was shuffled further back. Excluding some drivers quickly jumping inside to find drafting partners before returning, Hamlin would lead a single-file train for much of the stage’s remainder.

On te final lap, Dillon and Kyle Larson broke up the train by moving to the inside, but Hamlin and the leaders followed suit and kept them behind en route to the stage win. Ryan Preece finished the stage second, followed by Dillon, Larson, Austin Cindric, Bell, Wallace, Logano, Chastain, and Custer. Preece and Cindric were both in non-chartered cars, and Cindric—making his Cup début—did not receive stage points as he is racing for the Xfinity Series championship; he won the series’ event the previous day. Although Busch was running second behind Hamlin for much of the final run, he sank out of order when Preece and company joined the picture.

Due to the delay, the opening stage lasted over seven hours. While a long wait, it pales in comparison to the 72-hour, three-day pause in Stage #1 of the 2020 fall Texas race.

Credit: Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images

Stage #2

Hamlin and Bell paced the grid to the green flag on lap 72, but the former ducked inside to work with his team-mate and Cindric became the outside’s leader with Team Penske companion Logano as his drafting partner. Cindric led a lap before dropping back and Hamlin jumped to the top ahead of Dillon.

Pushed by Busch and Harvick, Bell took the lead on lap 82. Despite being a Ford driver, Harvick worked with the Toyotas before the inside line sank and he merged with the outside. JGR cars occupied the top three as Bell led Busch and Hamlin, while the rest of the pack ran in a line. While anticlimactic for fans, the strategy is intended to help the drivers reach the halfway point of the race and beyond.

Green-flag pit stops began on lap 105 with the Fords. The Toyota camp waited two laps before doing so, and Dillon led the Chevrolets on track before they did so on lap 108; Preece was the lone Chevrolet driver to pit in advance, leaving him without a supporting cast in the draft. The three manufacturers executed different pit strategies with the Fords and Chevrolets only adding fuel while the Toyotas changed right-side tyres in addition to gas. After the stops, Larson became the race leader for the first time as a Hendrick driver before losing the position to Hamlin.

On lap 111, in a tangle between sprint car racing veterans, Bell’s left-rear tyre went down in turn one, causing his car to get loose, hit Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and the wall, before spinning through the backstretch; Larson was grazed by Stenhouse and suffered a flat. Grala’s car lost its brakes and caught fire as he took it to pit road. The fire caused the restart to be waved off for a lap, while Grala’s Kaulig Racing crew extinguished the fire and got his #16 back on track, only for additional flames to come out and send him back to the pits.

The restart came with 13 laps to go as Hamlin battled with Keselowski. Hamlin, working with his 23XI Racing employee Wallace, cleared the field to take the top two spots as the race resturned to single file. On the penultimate lap, McDowell and a contingent of Fords joined the fight on the inside and Wallace hopped out to join them, briefly giving him the lead at the white flag before he got loose from McDowell’s draft.

In the scramble to the finish off turn four, Wallace and Hamlin ran side-by-side before the latter and Harvick had the better run to the line. Wallace, Elliott, Dillon, Logano, McDowell, Larson, Busch, and Keselowski rounded out the top ten. Hamlin became the first driver to win the first two segments in a Daytona 500 since the stage format’s introduction in 2017, and also surpassed Bobby Allison for the fifth-most all-time laps led in the event.

Stage #3

A two-tyre stop enabled Dillon to be the first out of the pits ahead of Hamlin, while Larson was penalised for a safety violation, particularly a torch’s proximity to the car, and Stenhouse had too many crewmen over the wall.

The final stage commenced on lap 137, and a good jump by Dillon propelled him ahead of Hamlin before the latter retaliated with his own pass on the backstretch. A push from Harvick on the outside nearly sent Hamlin into the wall but he saved the car. Once again single file, Hamlin continued to lead Harvick; by the 50-to-go point, the top five consisted of Hamlin, Harvick, Logano, Busch, and Cindric.

With 44 laps to go, Stenhouse hit pit road while Briscoe was slapped with a penalty for a crewman going over the wall too soon. The Fords pitted on lap 17 and the Chevrolets a lap later and the Toyotas after that. The Fords held the advantage over the Chevrolets as Logano led the pack in catching up to the Toyotas; riding the momentum, Logano passed Hamlin for the lead on lap 174.

The Toyotas were quickly broken up by the charging pack, forcing Bell to group up with Cindric and Corey LaJoie despite the trio each running a different manufacturer. Further misfortunes befell Toyota’s drivers when a loose wheel on Wallace’s car necessitated a pit stop and effectively removed him from win contention, while Bell also pitted.

Down to 15 laps remaining, Fords occupied the top five as Logano led Harvick, Custer, Keselowski, and McDowell; Busch was the lone Toyota driver in the top ten as he was surrounded by Chevrolets. Four laps later, the Chevrolets began a run with Chastain and Dillon leading the way, which cycled Custer out of the top ten. Chastain attempted his own move but fell back.

Approaching the white flag, Harvick was shuffled out on the inside and Keselowski joined his Penske team-mate in the top two. Dillon came down in front of Harvick on the inside on the backstretch, while McDowell served as a pusher until he reached Keselowski’s rear.

Entering turn three, as Keselowski and McDowell closed in, Logano came down on the former, but McDowell’s strong push and Logano’s block resulted in the Penske team-mates making contact instead. As Logano slid through the grass, Keselowski’s car went up the track into the wall, where he was impacted by Busch and sent into the air, producing a fireball that collected Wallace and Cindric. All drivers were unharmed and subsequently released from the infield care center.

Credit: David Rosenblum/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

“Update: Fire is hot,” Cindric quipped on Twitter.

“I had a big run down the backstretch and wanted to make the pass to win the Daytona 500 and it ended up really bad,” Keselowski said after the race. “I don’t feel like I made a mistake, but I can’t drive everybody else’s car, so frustrating. The Discount Tire Ford was not the fastest, but (crew chief) Jeremy Bullins and the whole team did a great job of keeping us in position and right then we were in position. It’s exactly where I want to be running second on the last lap at Daytona with this package and had the run, made the move and it didn’t work out.”

The caution came out as McDowell entered a three-wide run to the finish against Elliott and Dillon, where NASCAR’s reviews concluded McDowell had been leading at the moment of the yellow.

Logano described the finish as “pandemonium, I guess. Chaos struck. The #2 (Keselowski) kept trying to back up, trying to get a run. I was trying to back up to him to keep the runs from being too big and just, I guess he got to the back of the #34 (McDowell) and it ended up being a really big run coming at me and it seemed like we all just collided in one spot. It’s a real bummer that none of the Penske cars won, but at least a Ford won and I’m really happy for McDowell. I hate that we didn’t win with our Shell/Pennzoil Mustang. I feel like we had a great shot being where we were and leading on the last lap, but if we couldn’t win I’m really happy to see McDowell win this thing. He’s a great guy, a great person, a good leader in life and has helped me a lot in my life, so it’s very cool to see him win the Daytona 500.”

McDowell is the first driver to score his first career Cup victory in the Daytona 500 since Trevor Bayne in 2011, and the eighth all time. Besides being his first win as a Cup driver, it is only his second in the national series with the first being the 2016 Xfinity event at Road America. The 36-year-old had spent much of his Cup career in start-and-park and backmarker rides before landing at FRM. Coincidentally, McDowell began his Cup career with Michael Waltrip Racing, whose owner also won his first Cup race with the 2001 500 after failing to visit Victory Lane for an especially long time (462 races for Waltrip); Bayne also drove for MWR early in his Xfinity career.

Bayne posted on Instagram“Incredibly happy for [McDowell]! He’s one of the best friends anyone can ever ask for and deserves this more than most people will ever know! He’s fought hard to stay in the sport and has made the most of the opportunities. Thankful to see his perseverance rewarded last night!

“I just can’t believe it, just got to thank God,” McDowell began in an interview with Fox Sports. “So many years just grinding it out and hoping for an opportunity like this. I’m so thankful. Just a great way to get our first victory. Daytona 500, are you kidding me!?”

Credit: Front Row Motorsports

In his post-race press conference, McDowell explained his plan “was to stick to the #2 car. I knew he would go for a race-winning move and my plan was to let him make that move and then coming off of four try to get to his outside or inside. I knew I didn’t want to make my move too early, so I was committed to the #2 car’s bumper and when he made the move, the hole opened up. It’s just unbelievable.”

FRM is no stranger to upset victories. In 2013, the team scored their first Cup triumph at Daytona’s sister superspeedway Talladega with Ragan, while Buescher recorded FRM’s second win at the fog-shortened Pocono 2 event in 2016. Crew chief Drew Blickensderfer gets his fourth Cup win and first since the 2011 Daytona race in July with Ragan; he also won the 2009 Daytona 500 with Matt Kenseth.

With the win, McDowell clinches a spot in July’s NASCAR All-Star Race at Texas and the playoffs, becoming FRM’s second playoff driver after Buescher in 2016. Due to FRM’s status as a small team, it is easy to write McDowell off as a likely first-round exit, though he will have twenty-five chances to show what he can do. His road course prowess will also come in handy as the 2021 Cup schedule features seven such courses, including next Sunday’s race on Daytona’s road course, where he finished tenth in 2020 and scored a podium in the 2012 Rolex 24 Hours.

Other finishers of note include Preece finishing sixth for his best run in JTG Daugherty Racing‘s #37, which does not have a charter for 2021. The Spire Motorsports duo of McMurray and LaJoie notched eighth- and ninth-place finishes to more than double the team’s top ten total. The Penske trio, after spending much of the race fighting for the win, was relegated to twelfth (Logano), thirteenth (Keselowski), and fifteenth (Cindric) with no finishers. Wallace finished seventeenth in 23XI Racing’s inaugural race, while McLeod’s Live Fast Motorsports operation ended their début race in twenty-third.

Race results

FinishStartNumberDriverTeamManufacturerLapsStatus
11734Michael McDowellFront Row MotorsportsFord200Running
2129Chase ElliottHendrick MotorsportsChevrolet200Running
343Austin DillonRichard Childress RacingChevrolet200Running
484Kevin HarvickStewart-Haas RacingFord200Running
52511Denny HamlinJoe Gibbs RacingToyota200Running
61137Ryan PreeceJTG Daugherty RacingChevrolet200Running
73442Ross ChastainChip Ganassi RacingChevrolet200Running
81977Jamie McMurraySpire MotorsportsChevrolet200Running
9167Corey LaJoieSpire MotorsportsChevrolet200Running
10135Kyle LarsonHendrick MotorsportsChevrolet200Running
112741Cole CusterStewart-Haas RacingFord200Running
12922Joey LoganoTeam PenskeFord199Accident
13242Brad KeselowskiTeam PenskeFord199Accident
141018Kyle BuschJoe Gibbs RacingToyota199Accident
153933Austin Cindric*Team PenskeFord199Accident
16520Christopher BellJoe Gibbs RacingToyota199Running
17623Bubba Wallace23XI RacingToyota198Accident
182147Ricky Stenhouse Jr.JTG Daugherty RacingChevrolet198Running
193014Chase BriscoeStewart-Haas RacingFord197Running
202853Joey GaseRick Ware RacingFord196Running
213551Cody WareRick Ware RacingChevrolet196Running
22201Kurt BuschChip Ganassi RacingChevrolet195Running
233878B.J. McLeod*Live Fast MotorsportsFord195Running
243752Josh BilickiRick Ware RacingFord194Running
252619Martin Truex Jr.Joe Gibbs RacingToyota193Running
26224William ByronHendrick MotorsportsChevrolet191Running
27298Tyler ReddickRichard Childress RacingChevrolet188Running
284016Kaz GralaKaulig RacingChevrolet115DVP
293300Quin HouffStarCom RacingChevrolet37Accident
301412Ryan BlaneyTeam PenskeFord14Accident
312217Chris BuescherRoush Fenway RacingFord14DVP
323638Anthony AlfredoFront Row MotorsportsFord14DVP
332321Matt DiBenedettoWood Brothers RacingFord14DVP
34310Aric AlmirolaStewart-Haas RacingFord13Accident
35148Alex BowmanHendrick MotorsportsChevrolet13Accident
361599Daniel SuárezTrackhouse Racing TeamChevrolet13Accident
371836David RaganFront Row MotorsportsFord13Accident
3876Ryan NewmanRoush Fenway RacingFord13Accident
393143Erik JonesRichard Petty MotorsportsChevrolet13Accident
403215Derrike CopeRick Ware RacingChevrolet3Accident
Italics – Competing for Rookie of the Year
* – Ineligible for Cup points
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