What Michael McDowell saw that helped him win the Daytona 500

By Alex Andrejev
The Charlotte Observer/TNS
Michael McDowell, driver of the (34) Love's Travel Stops Ford, celebrates in victory lane after winning the NASCAR Cup Series 63rd Annual Daytona 500 at Daytona International Speedway on Feb. 14, 2021 in Daytona Beach, Fla.

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. - It took Michael McDowell a full lap around the track in the early hours of Monday morning to understand that he was a Daytona 500 champion. That’s because NASCAR was still deliberating the finish of the race.

“I didn’t know at all when the caution came out,” McDowell said of the last-lap yellow flag that NASCAR eventually deemed flew with McDowell in the lead for the win.

“It was just so chaotic that I had no idea where the yellow came out and where I was at the time,” McDowell said.

In the final lap of the Daytona 500, two former NASCAR Cup champions were leading the race. Brad Keselowski was on the tail of Penske teammate Joey Logano, and McDowell was pushing Keselowski with a line of cars behind them riding the top lane at Daytona International Speedway. The intensity was high as spectators awaited an inevitable, late-lap move to try a pass for the lead, but it was getting late. Who would go for it? Keselowski? McDowell?

“I definitely was pushing Brad,” McDowell, 36, said. “The last lap you just lock bumpers and push as hard as you could, but I gave him a shove.”

They got disconnected as Keselowski appeared to attempt his pass, driving low and right into the back of Logano, who simultaneously dipped low. The drivers spun off each other in opposite directions - Logano into the grass on the inside and Keselowski into the outside wall - and McDowell sliced right between them and drove to his first win in the Cup Series and an improbable Daytona 500 victory. He led just half a lap in the whole race.

“I don’t feel like I made a mistake,” Keselowski said after the race. “But I can’t drive everybody else’s car, so frustrating.

“The Discount Tire Ford was not the fastest, but (crew chief) Jeremy Bullins and the whole team did a great job of keeping us in position and right then we were in position,” Keselowski added. “It’s exactly where I want to be running second on the last lap at Daytona with this package and had the run, made the move and it didn’t work out.”

Logano called it “pandemonium.”

“Chaos struck,” Logano said. “(Keselowski) kept trying to back up, trying to get a run. I was trying to back up to him to keep the runs from being too big and just, I guess he got to the back of (McDowell) and it ended up being a really big run coming at me and it seemed like we all just collided in one spot.”

But the move by Keselowski separated him and McDowell, which gave the No. 34 Ford Mustang the gap to get through.

“I felt like if I could just stay on his bumper, that would give me the opportunity when he did make the move to hopefully make a hole and make something happen,” McDowell said. “The hole happened on its own.”

Kyle Busch and Brad Keselowski collided as Keselowski hit the wall, his No. 2 Ford smashed and ignited like a giant fireball that also caught Bubba Wallace in the carnage.

McDowell, a 14-year Cup veteran known as a down-to-earth grinder around the garage, drove his own motorhome to this year’s race, and never won a Cup event before Monday.

“I think that’s an important part of it is just believing that it’s possible,” McDowell said. “It’s not so much believing like, oh, I can do it, I’m good enough. I don’t care about that stuff, just believing that it’s possible that it could happen, and it did.”

Logano called it a bummer that a Penske car didn’t win, but said he was happy for McDowell.

“If we couldn’t win, I’m really happy to see McDowell win this thing,” Logano said. “He’s a great guy, a great person, a good leader in life and has helped me a lot in my life.

“So it’s very cool to see him win the Daytona 500.”