Michael McDowell misses last-lap crash, scores first victory in Daytona 500

Michael McDowell won in a Monday morning finish to a soggy Daytona 500, starting the 2021 NASCAR Cup Series with a season-opening victory.

In a stunning upset at the end of an action-filled, rain-interrupted Daytona 500, Front Row Motorsports driver Michael McDowell claimed his first NASCAR Cup Series victory after charging into the lead during a brutal multi-car wreck in Turn 3 on the final lap.

“I can‘t believe it,” McDowell said. “I‘ve got to thank God. So many years of just grinding it out, hoping for an opportunity like this. I‘ve got to thank (team owner) Bob Jenkins for giving me this opportunity. I‘m so thankful. 

“What a great way to get a first victory — in the Daytona 500!”

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In fact, McDowell, who led only the final lap at 2.5-mile Daytona International Speedway, is the eighth driver to get his first Cup win in The Great American Race. His victory is the third for Front Row Motorsports — all coming in the No. 34 Ford with three different drivers: David Ragan at Talladega Superspeedway, Chris Buescher at Pocono Raceway and McDowell at Daytona. And according to Racing Insights, McDowell’s 358 starts before his first win is the second-longest streak to Michael Waltrip’s 463, which also ended with a Daytona 500 victory.

Reigning series champion Chase Elliott finished second after contact between the Team Penske Fords of Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano ignited the final wreck, sending the Toyota of Kyle Busch rocketing into the outside wall. When NASCAR illuminated the caution lights, McDowell was in the lead over Elliott by a car length. 

“I saw the lights come on (for the caution), and I knew it was over right then,” Elliott said. “We had a fast car. We weren‘t as good as I thought we were on Thursday (in the Duel 150-mile qualifying race). I thought we did a really good job of executing today, staying out of trouble.

“That‘s not something I‘ve done a very good job of here in this race, so I‘m glad we could at least finish this race and have something to build on for when we come back and try to do better.”

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Austin Dillon ran third, followed by Kevin Harvick and Denny Hamlin, who fell short in his attempt to win a record third straight Daytona 500. Hamlin won the first two stages but lost the lead during the final cycle of green-flag pit stops when the small contingent of Toyotas got separated while exiting pit road.

Hamlin took the lead in the second stage after a cycle of green-flag pit stops and held it through the fifth caution of the race, which waved when Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Christopher Bell cut a left-rear tire and spun into the Chevrolet of Ricky Stenhouse Jr.

At that point, Hamlin had led 58 laps, bringing his total of laps led in the Daytona 500 to 434, fifth all time and one ahead of Bobby Allison. Hamlin had led 34 consecutive laps to win Stage 1 after racing resumed Sunday night. He finished with a race-high 98 laps led.

On Lap 14, before a long rain delay, off-center contact from Bell‘s Toyota to the rear bumper of Aric Almirola‘s Ford sent Almirola spinning near the front of the field, triggering a massive 16-car pile-up that inexorably altered the complexion of the race.

“We were just getting pushed too hard too early,” Almirola said. “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 (Bell) 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.” 

Collected in the wreck were: Ryan Newman, making his first Daytona 500 start since the devastating last-lap wreck that put him in the hospital a year ago; Erik Jones, in his first start in a points race for his new team, Richard Petty Motorsports; Daniel Suarez, in his first run with newly formed Trackhouse Racing, a joint venture between Justin Marks and rapper Pitbull; and pole-sitter Alex Bowman, whose No. 48 Chevrolet was wiped out when Almirola shot up the track into the side of his car and rammed it into the wall. 

“It looks like the No. 10 (Almirola) kind of got turned sideways there, and I was the guy that got ran into,” Bowman said after an obligatory trip to the infield care center. “Bummer — I hate it for (sponsor) Ally. Obviously, we had a really fast Camaro. The Chevrolets were working good together; hopefully, a Chevy still ends up in Victory Lane. 

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“Hats off to everybody at Hendrick Motorsports; they built some really fast race cars. Hate that superspeedway racing works out that way sometimes, but that‘s just part of the game.”

Also heavily damaged in the melee were the cars of William Byron, Kurt Busch, Tyler Reddick, Ryan Blaney, Chris Buescher, David Ragan, Jamie McMurray and Matt DiBenedetto. To add insult to injury, nearby lightning strikes delayed the restart of the race and heavy rains followed shortly thereafter.

Five hours and 40 minutes later, after the rain abated and the track dried, engines were re-fired at 9:07 p.m. ET, and the race resumed with 24 cars on the lead lap. The NASCAR Cup Series’ next race is scheduled Sunday (3 p.m. ET, FOX, MRN, SiriusXM) at Daytona’s 3.61-mile road-course layout.

Notes: In his first points race for the new 23XI Racing team co-owned by Denny Hamlin and Michael Jordan, Bubba Wallace ran near the front of the pack throughout the race but lost a lap with an unscheduled pit stop for a vibration on Lap 178 of 200. Wallace was caught up in the last-lap wreck and finished 17th…  Kyle Larson ran 10th in his first trip in the No. 5 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet… Austin Cindric‘s strong Cup debut ended in the last-lap wreck that claimed three Team Penske cars… Ryan Preece, Ross Chastain, Jamie McMurray and Corey LaJoie claimed the sixth through ninth finishing positions, respectively… .

NOTE: The No. 34 Front Row Motorsports Ford of Michael McDowell passed post-race technical inspection early Monday morning after winning the NASCAR Cup Series‘ Daytona 500 at the Daytona International Speedway. There were no other issues.

Contributing: Staff reports