Michael McDowell was glued to Brad Keselowski’s bumper, watching and waiting for his chance to win the Daytona 500.
Joey Logano was the leader, the laps were winding down and yet no one had the nerve to pull out of traffic. McDowell was certain Keselowski would go for it eventually, and when he did, McDowell would play his hand.
On the final lap, Keselowski attempted to dart around Logano, but Logano threw a block on his teammate that crashed them both. McDowell stayed right where he was, flat in the gas, and drove through a crash scene for a stunning upset.
“I knew he would go for a race-winning move and my plan was to let him make that move,” McDowell said. ”I knew I didn’t want to make my move too early, so I was committed to the (Keselowski) bumper and when he made the move, the hole opened up.”
A 100-1 underdog when the race began Sunday afternoon, McDowell won for the first time in 358 Cup starts when the checkered flag finally flew about 15 minutes after midnight. The race was stopped by rain for almost six hours and ended nine hours after the green flag waved at Daytona International Speedway.
“There’s been lots of years where I was wondering what the heck am I doing and why am I doing it?” McDowell said. “I always knew if I just kept grinding that one day everything will line up and go right.”
NASCAR’s season opener was stacked with storylines. Denny Hamlin was trying for a record third-consecutive Daytona 500 victory, and the team he started with Michael Jordan was debuting with driver Bubba Wallace.
Kyle Larson was back after nearly a year in exile for using a racial slur, and reigning Cup champion Chase Elliott was going for his first Daytona 500 win.
And all the way at the back of the field, 1990 Daytona 500 winner Derrike Cope made what he said would be his final NASCAR start. At 62 he was the oldest driver in the field, and his upset victory 31 years ago was considered the biggest in race history.
McDowell didn’t take that title from Cope, partly because McDowell is a strong superspeedway racer capable of mixing it up with the usual suspects. If he could ever find himself in the right place at the right time, McDowell figured he could steal a win.
“It’s been a tough road for me. I’ve had to spend a lot of years grinding it out,” McDowell said. His career has been stabilized by four seasons driving for Front Row Motorsports, a tiny team in the Ford family that can hold its own at Daytona.
McDowell was in the mix even before the two Penske cars derailed the finish. His Ford was strong enough to push Keselowski, and McDowell figured with the checkered flag in sight, he’d try to pass Keselowski as they exited the final turn.
Logano’s block of Keselowski — it seemed late, Keselowski had already started to pull alongside his teammate — triggered a fiery multi-car pileup that was in McDowell’s rearview mirror.
“Brad was turning right, Joey was turning left and I went right through the middle,” McDowell said. “It’s just kind of a blur from there.”
Keselowski subtly blamed Logano for the messy finish, “I wanted to make the pass to win the Daytona 500 and it ended up really bad. I don’t feel like I made a mistake, but I can’t drive everybody else’s car. So frustrating.”
Logano had no explanation for the ending, ”Pandemonium, I guess. Chaos struck,” said Logano. It’s a real bummer that none of the Penske cars won, but at least a Ford won and I’m really happy for McDowell. If we couldn’t win, I’m really happy to see McDowell win this thing.”
McDowell, who led less than half of a lap, drag-raced Elliott and Austin Dillon until NASCAR finally called a caution.
A batch of solid contenders were knocked from the race just 15 laps in by a 16-car accident that began at the front of the field. It thinned the pack and set up a showdown between Kevin Harvick and Hamlin.
Hamlin and Harvick had the two best cars but pit strategy ended Hamlin’s shot at winning a record third consecutive Daytona 500. The Ford drivers pitted first as a group, followed by the Chevrolets a lap later and finally the Toyotas.
But the Toyota group has just five cars and they couldn’t group back together to reclaim control of the race. It put Logano, Keselowski and the Ford drivers out front, and Logano led the final 25 laps until Keselowski made his move.
McDowell held off Elliott and Dillon. Harvick finished fourth, and Hamlin was fifth after leading a race-high 98 laps.
Only 11 cars finished on the lead lap.
Meanwhile, Keselowski and Logano will have to explain this one to The Captain, but neither driver had any regrets about the ending.
“Had a big run down the backstretch, wanted the make the pass to win the Daytona 500 and it ended up really bad,” Keselowski said. “Don’t feel like I made a mistake, but I can’t drive everyone else’s car. Frustrating. …
“We were in position. It’s exactly where I wanted to be – running second on the last lap of Daytona with this package. Had the run, made the move and it didn’t work out.”
Logano felt like Keselowski intentionally dropped back in hopes of getting a run. If so, it worked. Keselowski and Michael McDowell hooked up, closed the gap on Logano and had nowhere to go when Logano made the block.
“Pandemonium, I guess,” Logano said. “Chaos struck. … It seemed like we all just collided in one spot. It’s a real bummer that none of the Penske cars won, but at least a Ford won and I’m really happy for McDowell.
“I feel like we had a great shot being where we were and leading on the last lap, but if we couldn’t win, I’m really happy to see McDowell win this thing. 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.”
Team owner Roger Penske, the man nicknamed “The Captain,” might not be as happy to see neither of his championship drivers in victory lane. Penske stresses working together, especially at Daytona and Talladega.
Penske has two Daytona 500 wins, one with Logano in 2015 and another with Ryan Newman in 2008. He surely had to be thinking he would celebrate another one early Monday with Logano and Keselowski running up front down the stretch.
Both cars ended up leaving the track on wreckers, and both drivers left the race in the back of ambulances. Logano finished 12th, one spot ahead of Keselowski.
“We knew there was going to be a run coming from somebody,” said Mark Rushbrook, global director for Ford Perfformance Motorsports. “Unfortunately, Brad and Joey got together, but McDowell was there to get the win. That’s why we have all of the Fords work together and had them in front.”
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