No fluke: Michael McDowell's Daytona 500 dream beats the odds

Michael McDowell faced 66-1 odds in scoring his first Cup Series win, but Denny Hamlin and others warned against calling it a total shock.

Michael McDowell opted not to go to sleep after his Daytona 500 victory in the early Monday hours. Besides the nervous energy of his first Cup Series win on NASCAR’s biggest stage, he reasoned a quick nap would only leave him out of sorts for the 500 champ’s day-after duties.

Even after McDowell’s late-race surge propelled him to his biggest triumph, he was still playing a form of catch-up as sunrise neared. “Every time I look down at my phone I have another 100 texts,” he said.

The 36-year-old veteran needed time to respond to all of the notes from all his well-wishers, and to host a video call from Victory Lane with his elated family, showing off the Harley J. Earl Trophy and his new champion’s ring. One of the phone calls McDowell received came from close friend Trevor Bayne, who notched his own breakthrough victory in the 500 some 10 years ago.

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Bayne’s Daytona triumph came in just his second Cup Series start as a relative unknown; McDowell’s arrived in his 358th appearance as a journeyman who went off as a 66-1 long shot in the Vegas sportsbooks.

Both drivers shared a moment over the phone around 5 a.m. ET Monday morning, but they also shared a degree of surprise in their 500 victories. Still, there was a note of caution to avoid calling McDowell’s win a fluke — no less an authority than three-time Daytona 500 winner Denny Hamlin said as much in a post-race tweet.

“I think we are underdogs, but when we come to Daytona I would consider us a top-five contender every time,” said McDowell, whose previous career best was fourth place at Daytona back in 2017, “and I don‘t say that because I‘m being boastful, 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, but I agree with Denny and I really appreciate what he says. That means a lot. I don‘t think it‘s a fluke because we do run up front at these races quite often and last night just worked out perfectly.”

After spending a few extra post-race hours at Daytona International Speedway on Monday morning, McDowell flew home to a warm welcome in North Carolina, where he was greeted by friends and fellow drivers, including longtime teammate David Ragan and fellow Ford pilot Aric Almirola.

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Bob Jenkins, McDowell’s car owner at Front Row Motorsports, had jumped on a far earlier flight after Sunday’s race had been delayed by rain. With some of his family split between the track and a tour of Disney earlier Sunday, he opted to get them home and watched the conclusion on TV with his wife.

“Surreal,” Jenkins said when asked what it was like to see the final laps unfold and his No. 34 Ford team secure its third Cup Series victory. Ragan (2013, Talladega) and Chris Buescher (2016, Pocono) produced the other wins for Front Row Motorsports, now in its 17th season.

A fluke, though? Jenkins sides with Hamlin, especially as it relates to FRM’s superspeedway performance through the years.

“I know the average fan is surprised when we win a race, but it never surprises me,” Jenkins said Monday. “It‘s taken a long time to get our third win and our first Daytona 500 win, but people don‘t realize this is our third top five in the Daytona 500, and I just wanted to get that. It‘s a lifetime goal. Obviously, you want to win championships, but you‘ve got to win races first and I can‘t imagine one bigger than the Daytona 500.”