On the final lap of the Daytona 500, the sea parted in Turn 3 for Michael McDowell. That was all he needed, as he shot through the two crashing Team Penske Fords of Joey Logano and Brad Keselowski. McDowell was declared the winner of the 63rd Great American Race, his first career NASCAR Cup Series win in his 358th start.
The caution flag came out as the rest of the field tried to avoid the flames and carnage surrounding the last-lap accident. After officials reviewed timing and scoring, it was determined that McDowell was ahead of reigning series champion Chase Elliott and 2018 Daytona 500 winner Austin Dillon. Kevin Harvick and Denny Hamlin rounded out the top five after leading for most of the race.
The final sequence of pit stops ended Hamlin’s hopes, as there were only five Toyotas grouped together. The Fords and Chevrolets hit pit lane first, and the momentum they had was too much for the Toyotas to catch back up. That allowed the Fords to take control of the race, where Logano led the final 25 laps before the final accident.
Hamlin was aiming for his fourth Daytona 500 win, and his third in a row. Only three other drivers have had the chance to win three consecutive Daytona 500 races, and none of them came as close as Hamlin, who won the first two stages and led 98 of the 200 laps on Sunday. The last driver with the opportunity was Sterling Marlin in 1996, but he finished 40th. Cale Yarborough tried in 1985 but finished 36th. Richard Petty came close in 1975 but ended up finishing in 7th.
McDowell led just one lap on Sunday, but it was the most important one. “I just can’t believe it,” said McDowell. “I’ve just got to thank God. So many years just grinding it out and hoping for an opportunity like this. I’ve got to thank Love’s Travel Stops, Speedco, Bob Jenkins (team owner) for giving me this opportunity. I’m so thankful. Such a great way to get a first victory — a Daytona 500. Are you kidding me?”
It was shaping up to be a tremendous night for Roger Penske, as two of his cars were out front and Austin Cindric was in contention as well. Unfortunately, the run that McDowell had entering Turn 3 was too much. After the initial bump draft, Keselowski and Logano actually spun in opposite directions and Brad got the worst of it as Kyle Busch slammed into the right side of his car and a fireball surrounded them, as well as Ross Chastain, Ryan Preece, Cindric, Cole Custer, and Bubba Wallace. The good news is that no drivers were injured in the accident.
Keselowski was aiming for his first-ever Daytona 500 victory, but it just wasn’t meant to be. “I wanted to make the pass to win the Daytona 500, and it ended up really bad,” Keselowski said. “I don’t feel like I made a mistake, but I can’t drive everybody else’s car. So frustrating.”
This was the third win for Front Row Motorsports. David Ragan won at Talladega in 2013 and Chris Buescher went to victory lane at Pocono in 2016. The win also clinches a playoff spot for McDowell, who won the Indy Pro 2000 championship in 2004. The 36-year old driver also competed in two CART races during the 2005 season.
The Rolex 24 at Daytona was two weeks ago but the Daytona 500 lasted nearly half of that. After waving the green flag on the 2021 Cup season, a 16-car accident halted the action after just 15 laps on Sunday afternoon. Christopher Bell had a massive run on the leaders and nudged Aric Almirola at a bad spot and turned the No. 10 car into pole-sitter Alex Bowman.
Martin Truex Jr, Erik Jones, Jamie McMurray, Ryan Blaney, William Byron, Ryan Newman, Daniel Suarez, and Kurt Busch were among those involved. Following the accident, lightning brought out the red flag, and then the skies opened up. Rain fell off and on at Daytona throughout the afternoon, but track crews were finally able to get the track dry by 9 PM when the race finally resumed.
Up next for the Cup series is another race at Daytona, but this one will be drastically different. The race on the road course is scheduled for February 21 at 3:30 PM ET on FOX. Elliott is the defending race winner from last season.