DAYTONA BEACH – First there was fire. Then rain. Followed by even more fire.
Last Sunday’s Daytona 500 had two massive crashes that involved a total of 24 cars, a six-hour rain delay and a surprise victory by Michael McDowell that was another unexpected, yet predictable, ending to one of stock car racing’s most bizarre days.
The season-opening race at the Daytona International Speedway once again proved to be elusive, eccentric and certainly entertaining. The only certainty at Daytona is its ability to be problematic for some of the sport’s elites and plausible for the most-desperate of longshots.
It took McDowell 358 Cup Series races to win for the first time. His surprising last-lap run was just his fourth top-five finish. All four came at either Daytona or its sister track at Talladega, Alabama.
All of the slow cars, frustration and impossible challenges of the past suddenly seemed worth it after he drove through a crash between race leaders Joey Logano and Brad Keselowski in the third turn of the final lap.
“I love this sport. I love being in NASCAR and I love the challenge of it and how difficult it is,” McDowell said. “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.”
McDowell now joins a list of other improbable Daytona 500 winners like Derrike Cope, Trevor Bayne and Ward Burton. Former champions Keselowski, Kyle Busch, Chase Elliott and Martin Truex Jr. still haven’t won the 500. Neither did Rusty Wallace, Tony Stewart and Terry Labonte during their careers.
There was a 16-car crash on the 14th lap that started when Busch gave Christopher Bell a hard bump in Turn 3. Bell rammed into Aric Almirola twice, and the second shove sent Almirola into the outside wall.
In a blink, contenders like Truex, Alex Bowman, Ryan Blaney, Kurt Busch, Ryan Newman and William Byron essentially were eliminated.
Then came the rain. Lots of rain.
The race finally resumed shortly after 9:30 p.m. Denny Hamlin, who was seeking to become the first driver to win the 500 three years in a row, won the first two segments.
The intensity boiled in the closing laps. Like a ticking timebomb, it seemed certain a lot of cars would finish on the wrong end of a wrecker’s hook. It boiled over with Keselowski and Logano, teammates at Team Penske, crashed when Logano aggressively blocked Keselowski, sending both into the wall.
“I don’t feel like I made a mistake, but I can’t drive everybody else’s car, so frustrating,” Keselowski.
McDowell’s victory also was a win for one of the smaller, underfunded teams. Front Row Motorsports often buys used parts just to maintain its meager existence in NASCAR.
Hamlin, who wound up fifth, was clear: McDowell’s victory was no fluke.
It was Daytona, where engine and aerodynamic restrictions creates a unique level playing field.
And unlikely winners.
“I think we are underdogs, but when we come to Daytona, I would consider us a top five contender every time, and I don’t say that because I’m being boastful,” McDowell said. “I just say that because a majority of these races we’re in the top five when it comes down to those last five laps – no different than Denny and Joey and there are a handful of guys that seem to be able to get themselves in those positions. But the difference is I haven’t been able to close. I haven’t been able to get to Victory Lane. I’ve been able to get in that Top 10 and that top five, so I do feel like we are underdogs from that standpoint.”
McDowell knows when the Cup Series moves to the Daytona road course on Sunday and the Homestead-Miami Speedway a week later, he’s probably destined to race in the back-half of the field. But for one night, one special night on the sport’s grandest stage, he had the rest of the sport in his rearview mirror.
“I think that you always have the fire for that and no doubt when you win that fire gets deeper, but we all know that’s not an every-week thing for us and our race team right now,” he said. “We’ve been making great gains, and I’m so proud of our Front Row organization. But we know that on 26 of the racetracks we’ll be happy to be in that Top 10.”