Underdog Michael McDowell wins the 2021 Daytona 500
Michael McDowell only led one lap of the 2021 Daytona 500. It was the only lap that mattered. As a pair of Penske teammates tangled while dueling for the lead on the last circuit, McDowell navigated his Love’s Travel Stop Mustang through the fiery carnage and to the finish line, earning his first-ever NASCAR Cup Series win.
At 66-1 odds, driving for a team that had only two Cup Series wins to its name, it’s safe to say McDowell was an underdog. Prior to the 500, the 13-year veteran’s best finish was fourth. He is the eighth driver to earn his first career win at the Daytona 500, and the 40th driver to win NASCAR’s biggest race.
Roughly nine hours prior to the last-lap fireworks, Alex Bowman and Kevin Harvick led the 40-car field to the green flag for the 63rd running of “The Great American Race.” It didn’t take long for the first incident to slow the field. On lap three, during a tribute to the late Dale Earnhardt’s passing 20 years ago—as fans and pit crews observed a moment of silence and held up three fingers—veteran Derrick Cope cut a tire and pancaked the wall.
Less than 10 laps after the green flag, the race was dealt an early crescendo. Christopher Bell spun second-running Aric Almirola in front of the field, causing a 16-car pileup. Top-tier teams and pre-race favorites crashed and smashed into the soggy infield grass. As the remaining cars slowed for the incident, the thunderstorms crept in, and for the second year in a row the 500 was halted by rain.
The massive rain delay gave teams involved in the wreck time to develop a game plan for repairs. Drivers who made it through unscathed did anything from tweet to eat. Chip Ganassi Racing’s Ross Chastain used the stoppage in play to order dinner for his entire team. In a viral PR stunt, the McDonalds-sponsored driver hopped into his daily driver and visited the burger chain’s drive-through while wearing his race suit.
After five hours and forty minutes, the contest resumed on a dry Daytona Speedway. Setting aside the obvious shift from day to night racing under the lights, the 500 looked like a different race entirely. With roughly a dozen less cars turning laps, the lead pack of cars drafting off one another was much smaller and infinitely less aggressive. Many drivers dicing it up prior to the wreck were now content to fall in line, and for a large portion of the remaining race, the field formed a single-file procession around the track.
This 200-mph parade was dominated by Denny Hamlin. The driver of the FedEx Camry was gunning for a record third consecutive 500 victory and fourth overall win. As the laps wound down, it looked like he might accomplish the feat, winning both race stages and leading a race-high 97 laps. Hamlin’s record-setting quest was put on hold, however, during a late pitstop when his team actually performed service too quickly, causing Hamlin to be too far ahead and ultimately become a sitting duck for the lead pack that drafted right past him.
With Hamlin out of the picture, a group of Ford Mustangs assumed the point, led by Joey Logano. The Penske driver remained out front until the backstretch of the final lap. By then, the single-file line had devolved into a gaggle of cars attempting to draft up on Logano. His Penske teammate Brad Keselowski got the closest. Too close. Keselowski’s nose made contact with Logano’s rear quarter panel, sending the duo spinning in opposite directions. The seas parted for third-place-running McDowell, and as the remaining cars stormed through turn three, the caution light was displayed, giving McDowell his first career NASCAR Cup Series victory and leaving the rest of the field stunned.
“I just can’t believe it. Got to thank God,” McDowell said in his post-race interview. “So many years just grinding it out, hoping for an opportunity like this.”
A young stand-out in professional karting and road racing, McDowell transitioned to stock cars in 2007. He earned his first Cup series ride in 2008, though never quite found the success he experienced early in his career, going winless for 357 starts. All previous hardships are softened by victory, and for McDowell, this one is deserved—and far from a fluke.
His previous career-best finish came at Daytona, and he is always a threat to win on the Superspeedways, usually spending time out front leading laps. He just never led the last one until Sunday night.