A Win Well Worth the Wait

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Tristan Fluhr

Journeyman NASCAR Driver Gets First Win in Daytona 500

On the restrictor plate tracks of Daytona and Talladega, it is often said that anyone that starts the race can win. As the NASCAR community has seen over the years, this can be true when an underdog wins at one of the two fastest tracks on the calendar. Ones that recently come to mind would be Trevor Bayne winning the Daytona 500 in his second career start in 2011, Dave Blaney nearly winning the Daytona 500 for Tommy Baldwin Racing in 2012, and David Ragan taking Front Row Motorsports to victory lane at the spring Talladega race in 2013. Perhaps no upset win has been as big as Michael McDowell’s win in the Daytona 500 on Feb 14. It was McDowell’s first career win in 358 career starts, which is the second most starts in NASCAR history before a first career win. McDowell has been the definition of a journeyman driver in his career who has run well at times, but never could break through until the sixty-third annual Daytona 500.

The Arizona native began his NASCAR Cup Series career in 2008 at 23-years-old after racing in the now Indy Pro 2000 series as a part of the IndyCar feeder program. He drove the #00 car with Aaron’s sponsorship for the brand-new Michael Waltrip Racing. Coincidentally, Michael Waltrip holds the record for the most races before a first career win at 463, getting his first career win in the 2001 Daytona 500. McDowell had a below average rookie season with an average finish of 30.1, but his rookie season – and career up until his Daytona 500 triumph – was defined by a horrific qualifying crash. McDowell’s car veered right and struck the wall going well over 200 miles per hour. The car flipped into a barrel roll down the backstretch of Texas Motor Speedway and landed in a heap. Incredibly, McDowell was able to walk away from the accident uninjured, a true testament to NASCAR’s Car of Tomorrow, the car NASCAR implemented after the death of Dale Earnhardt, Sr. in 2001.

After a lackluster sophomore season and sponsorship issues, McDowell remained without a job for much of the 2009 season before finding a ride with the start and park team, Prism Motorsports for 2010. McDowell showed his restrictor plate racing prowess in the 2010 Duels at Daytona when he raced his way into the Daytona 500 with one of the most underfunded teams and under-horse powered teams in the field. For 2011, McDowell jumped to HP Racing and only finished a race in its entirety twice – thus being the nature of a start and park team and not wanting to ruin an underfunded team’s precious few racecars. At the 2011 Fall race at Texas Motor Speedway, the same track that nearly took his life four years previously, he drove one of the best cars in the sport, the #18 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota in place of a suspended Kyle Busch. McDowell finished in thirty-third position.

From 2012 to 2017, McDowell drove for Phil Parsons Racing and Leavine Family Racing in the Cup Series. Although the results were again subpar for the most part, he always seemed to find a way to be competitive and miss the big wrecks at the superspeedways. McDowell finished eighth in the 2013 Daytona 500, tenth in the 2016 July Daytona race, and fourth in the 2017 July Daytona race. For the 2018 season, McDowell signed with Front Row Motorsports, another underfunded team, but one that had two wins with David Ragan at Talladega in 2013 and Chris Buescher at Pocono in a fog-shortened race in 2016. It was with FRM that McDowell started finding consistency for the first time in his career. Eight of his thirteen career top-ten finishes and all of the best averages finishes of his career have come with the Bob Jenkins owned team.

The 2021 season is the fourth with Front Row Motorsports. After the duels set the starting order for the Daytona 500, McDowell started seventeenth. He made it through the massive crash on lap fifteen with minimal damage and waited out the over six-hour rain delay of the race. In the late stages of the race, McDowell consistently ran in the top five. At the end of the back straightaway on the last lap when Joey Logano blocked teammate Brad Keselowski, wrecking both cars and causing a fiery crash, McDowell found himself as the leader and at the time the caution came out, he was declared the winner of the race. It almost seems poetic that the car sponsored by Love’s Truck Stops won on Valentine’s Day. He celebrated his first career win in victory late at Daytona International Speedway with the Harley J. Earl trophy, that will next year and forward will bear the name of 2021 Daytona 500 Champion, Michael McDowell. Story by Tristan Fluhr.

Stats from racingreference.info