Phoenix, Arizona’s Michael McDowell won the 63rd running of the Daytona 500 on Monday morning after leading just one lap and driving through chaotic crashes on a race that started on Sunday afternoon and was delayed due to weather for over five hours.
McDowell, 36, was running third with one lap to go, but inherited the race lead by avoiding a massive collision between a pair of teammates, Joey Logano and Brad Keselowski, who made contact while leading with less than one lap to go.
“Brad and I pulled down with a run and next thing you know Brad was turning right, Joey was turning left and I went right through the middle of it, and I looked in my mirror and I saw Chase Elliott with a run and I went up there and blocked him as fast as I could and we made a little bit of contact, and I didn’t see anything else from that point,” McDowell said.
McDowell, who had only scored 3 top-fives and 12 top-10 finishes in 357 prior starts, became the eighth driver in NASCAR history to score their first career win in the Great American Race.
“It’s been a tough road for me,” McDowell said. “I’ve had to spend a lot of years grinding it out, but I finally have felt like this last four years have been — just been more competitive and greater opportunities with Front Row [Motorsports].”
McDowell was involved in the first big wreck of the day on lap 13 which took almost half of the 40-car field out of contention, but his damage was minimal compared to the 10 cars that were totaled.
“We kind of slid in some oil, thought we missed the wreck and we flattened the right side of the car and when the lightning and the rain came we were sitting on pit road with two flat tires and a pancaked right side,” said Dre Blickensderfer, McDowell’s crew chief. “I kept telling [McDowell] it’s fine, it’s nothing more than a Darlington stripe, it’s just a little bit of narrowing up and we were able to put tires on it when they pulled the red flag and our car was fine.”
Behind McDowell, Chase Elliott and Austin Dillon were also able to avoid the last-lap crash and finished second and third respectively.
“Nobody wanted to pull out of line,” Elliott said. “We were so afraid that there was only a few Chevrolets left right there at the end, even if we had all got bunched up — I know I wasn’t sure whether or not it was going to be enough.”
Denny Hamlin, who won the last two Daytona 500s, led 98 of the race’s 200 laps and passed Bobby Allison for fifth on the list of all-time laps led in the Daytona 500, but finished fifth after getting shuffled to the back of the lead lap cars after a bad pit stop.
The race was run under caution seven times for a total of 40 laps, had 22 lead changes between 13 drivers and, fortunately, all drivers who were involved in wrecks were uninjured.
The NASCAR Cup Series will be back in action next Sunday at the Daytona International Speedway road course at 3 p.m. eastern time.
Stage 1 – 65 laps
The 63rd running of the Daytona 500 began under overcast skies and with Alex Bowman out front, but Kevin Harvick linked up with his Stewart-Haas Racing teammate, Aric Almirola, to pass Bowman for the lead. On just the race’s third lap, 1990 Daytona 500 champion Derrike Cope lost a tire and hit the outside wall, putting him out of the race and bringing out the first caution in the 200-lap marathon.
The race resumed on lap 8 with Harvick out front. It didn’t take long for drivers to find new lines to move forward, and cars were three-wide quickly after the restart. Five Chevrolets led by Bowman’s no. 48 began to make a run up the outside toward the front, but when Christopher Bell bumped the rear-end of second-place Almirola, triggering a massive multi-car pileup which took Almirola, Bowman, Ryan Blaney, Chris Buescher, Anthony Alfredo, Matt DiBenedetto, Daniel Suarez, David Ragan, Ryan Newman and Erik Jones out of the race altogether. William Byron, Jamie McMurray, Tyler Reddick and Kurt Busch were also involved in the crash and had damaged cars, but they were able to make repairs and continue racing.
Under the caution, the skies flashed with lightning, which prompted NASCAR officials to throw the red flag as per their safety protocols. Rain followed the lightning and began to drench Daytona International Speedway, pausing the race just 15 circuits in.
Five hours, 40 minutes and 28 seconds later, the Daytona 500 finally resumed.
The caution replaced the red flag and drivers immediately came down pit road for four brand-new tires and fuel to ensure maximum grip when the race restarted on lap 30 with reigning series champion Chase Elliott out front. Auston Dillon got help from Ryan Preece to take the lead, but it was only a lap before Denny Hamlin came charging up the outside, taking the lead as the rest of the field began to play follow-the-leader in a single file line at 200 mph.
The caution came back out on lap 38 when Quin Houff lost a tire and spun out, collecting and damaging rookie Chase Briscoe’s car as well. Houff’s car sustained too much damage to continue racing, but Briscoe’s team was able to make repairs to the front of the no. 14 Ford Mustang.
Hamlin continued to lead once the green flag came back out as drivers again created a single-file line behind the FedEx-sponsored no. 11 Toyota.
With 3 laps left in the stage, Kevin Harvick, Brad Keselowski and Cole Custer dropped to the inside, but didn’t have enough help to make up any ground on the leaders. Ryan Preece, who raced his way into the Daytona 500 in Thursday’s duels, made a run to second on the final lap, but Hamlin held the field off to collect his first stage win of the year.
The top-10 finishers in stage 1 were Hamlin, Preece, Austin Dillon, Kyle Larson, Austin Cindric, Christopher Bell, Darrell “Bubba” Wallace, Jr., Joey Logano, Ross Chastain and Cole Custer.
Stage 2 – 65 laps
The leaders pitted under the stage-end caution period, and the race restarted with Hamlin in control again on lap 67. The Team Penske trio of Cindric, Logano and Keselowski tried to take the lead, but they couldn’t stay clear, but when Hamlin made a block, Bell got a push to the lead and began to to what Hamlin did in stage 1 by taking the field to a single-file line on the outside of the track.
On lap 103, the Ford drivers elected to come to pit road as a group. Three laps later, Bell led the Toyotas down pit road, and the Chevrolets pitted two laps after the Toyotas. Kyle Larson cycled out to the lead. Hamlin took the lead, but Bell lost a tire in the middle of the pack and lost control, hitting Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. They also collected Larson and Jamie McMurray, bringing out the caution at lap 111. Kaz Grala, making his first Daytona 500 start, had a brake rotor go up in flames under the caution, ending his night.
Hamlin led the field back to the green flag on lap 117 with Wallace behind him. Drivers fell behind the pair of Toyotas, planning how and when they would make their move for the lead before the stage’s end. With two laps left in the stage, the Penske Fords jumped out of line and made a run to the front, but they were stopped by Wallace, who jumped out from behind Hamlin to block. Hamlin crossed the finish line first, sweeping stages 1 and 2.
In stage 2, the top-10 finishers were Hamlin, Harvick, Wallace, Chase Elliott, Austin Dillon, Logano, Michael McDowell, Larson, Kyle Busch and Keselowski.
Race to the finish – 70 laps
Austin Dillon took the lead from Hamlin under yellow flag pit stops, but when the race restarted on lap 136, Hamlin effortlessly passed Dillon. Hamlin took his car to the top yet again and strung the field out with Harvick, Logano and Kyle Busch behind him. Drivers again were strategizing while following Hamlin, planning when they would make their final trip to pit road.
On lap 169, the Ford drivers brought their cars down pit road for their final stop. One lap later, The Chevrolets took their turn in the pits, and the five Toyota Camrys in the race pitted two laps after the Chevys.
Logano cycled out to the lead with 25 laps to go while Hamlin fell back to 13th. Behind Logano were the four Fords of Harvick, Custer, Keselowski and McDowell.
Wallace felt a vibration after his pit stop, forcing him to pit again with 23 laps left. Wallace lost a lap, leaving just 16 cars on the lead and competing for the Harley J. Earl trophy.
The laps began to run out as the field stayed single-file behind Logano’s no. 22 Ford as Sunday faded into Monday at Daytona Beach. Chastain made a move to the inside with Cole Custer, but the two fell back in the back.
With two laps to go, Keselowski got a push from McDowell. He Used the momentum to pass Harvick, but couldn’t pass Logano. With one more push from McDowell, Keselowski made a run to Logano’s inside for the lead on the last lap, but the Team Penske cars collide, parting the way for McDowell to sneak through as the pack wrecked behind him. Chase Elliott and Austin Dillon made it through the wreck as well, but didn’t have enough time to pass McDowell before the caution came out.
Featured photo credit: John Raoux/AP Photo