Massive wreck gives Michael McDowell Daytona win

By Alex Andrejev
The Charlotte Observer/TNS
Kyle Busch, driver of the #18 M&M's Toyota, Brad Keselowski, driver of the #2 Discount Tire Ford, Austin Cindric, driver of the #33 Verizon 5G Ford, Joey Logano, driver of the #22 Shell Pennzoil Ford, Bubba Wallace, driver of the #23 DoorDash Toyota, Cole Custer, driver of the #41 HaasTooling.com Ford, are involved in an on-track incident during the NASCAR Cup Series 63rd Annual Daytona 500 at Daytona International Speedway on Sunday, Feb. 14, 2021 in Daytona Beach, Fla.

On Sunday, Michael McDowell had never won a Cup race in his 13 years in the series. In the early hours of Monday morning, after rain and fog stalled green flag racing for nearly six hours, that changed when McDowell shoved the car in front of him then passed the finish line in first.

McDowell won the Daytona 500 as the previous race leaders, Joey Logano and Brad Keselowski crashed in a fiery heap around him. NASCAR reviewed the finish, but determined that McDowell had crossed the finish line before the caution. Keselowski and Logano both exited their cars after the accident, as well as Kyle Busch, who was caught up in the crash.

Chase Elliott finished in second and Austin Dillon finished in third.

Three-time Daytona 500 winner Hamlin led 98 laps of the 200-lap race, and swept both stages. But it wasn’t a former Daytona winner who conquered this year’s race. It was a driver who had never won in Cup before winning on NASCAR’s biggest stage.

EARLY AGGRESSION HAS BIG CONSEQUENCES

“The Big One” came early during the superspeedway event that never fails to deliver massive crashes. After 15 laps, Kyle Busch gave Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Christopher Bell a shove riding in the top-four in the inside lane. Bell shot forward attempting to give Stewart-Haas Racing driver Aric Almirola a bump, but it was too much.

Almirola, who was running in second, turned to the outside lane and into pole-sitter and Hendrick driver Alex Bowman. Both went nearly nose-first into the outside wall, collecting 14 cars in their wake.

“That was really disappointing and not ideal at all,” Bell said on FOX. “I had zero intention of causing any wreck. I was very content riding where I was. I was just trying to make sure that our line was staying forward.”

Kevin Harvick, in first, avoided the wreck, as did Bell and Busch. Austin Dillon, Chase Elliott, Kyle Larson, Joey Logano and Ryan Preece also narrowly missed the cars crashing around them.

The day ended early for other possible top finishers, including Ryan Blaney and Ryan Newman. Newman led the final lap of last year’s Daytona 500 before his accident. Blaney finished second last year behind three-time Daytona 500 winner Denny Hamlin.

Hamlin avoided the crash running in the back of the pack. He started 25th and was racing in the bottom-20 when the chaos ensued. Drivers making their debuts with new teams, Daniel Suárez and Erik Jones, also exited the race, as well as David Ragan.

HAMLIN STILL DOMINATES SUPERSPEEDWAYS

Hamlin missed “The Big One,” racing at the back of the pack. After the rain relay, Hamlin led 40 laps after the restart before strategic pitting with his Toyota teammates took him from the lead. He sailed to a first stage win to open the season.

In the second stage, Hamlin also controlled the race, battling with his 23XI team’s driver Bubba Wallace, as well as his 2020 rival Kevin Harvick, coming down to the final laps in the stage.

Although Hamlin led laps in the last stage and it looked like he could race to a confident third consecutive Daytona 500 win, a late pit stop caused his downfall. Hamlin led a pack of Toyotas to pit with under 30 laps to go, but the teammates got broken up coming off pit road, losing momentum and speed. Hamlin was shuffled back, without enough time to catch up without a caution. The caution came too late for Hamlin, but it was just early enough for McDowell to officially clinch the win.

SMALL TEAMS SPLIT BETWEEN HEARTBREAK, SUCCESS

While single-car teams with new drivers like Richard Petty Motorsports and Trackhouse were knocked out of the running early due to wrecks, it was a strong debut for the Hamlin and Michael Jordan owned team, 23XI. Wallace was racing in the top-five throughout the race and led a single lap, making him the first Black driver to lead a lap in the Daytona 500.

That was after Wallace started at the rear of the race for his car failing pre-race technical inspection multiple times. But Wallace began reporting vibration in his No. 23 Toyota late in the race and had to make a green flag pit stop. The driver said his goal was two wins this season, which seemed ambitious for a team that was fully formed only a few short months ago. But after a Speedweeks that saw him post fast practice and qualifying times, and a Daytona 500 in which he races at the front of the pack, that seems entirely possible, even probable.

It was also a strong debut for the Spire Motorsports cars of Jamie McMurray, a former full-time driver who returned to the race for a one-off 500 showing, and Corey LaJoie, who made a transition to the team this year. McMurray and LaJoie finished in eighth and ninth, respectively.