Michael McDowell’s Daytona 500 Victory Was a Matter of Time

Beneath the underlying steady hum of restricted V8 engines could be heard a ticking clock.

Was it a timer or a time bomb?

Anyway, the contenders in the Great American Race all heard it.

… tick tock tick tock tick tock …

Joey Logano found himself leading the 63rd Daytona 500 with 20 laps to go but there is little joy to be found in the accomplishment because everyone knows what generally comes next.

That alarm is eventually going to go off.

Maybe this time would be different, the Penske No. 22 team were surely convincing themselves, buying into the security blanket that was having five fellow Fords, including teammate Brad Keselowski, lined-up behind him.

Perhaps, the 165 laps that followed the Lap 15 crash that wiped out 15 cars and made the race largely a single file train around the top would maintain itself through the finish. Could there be some mystic force preventing the field from making a move?

… tick tock tick tock tick tock …

Meanwhile, Denny Hamlin had the car to beat.

Seeking a third consecutive victory in the Great American Race, Hamlin could place the Joe Gibbs Racing No. 11 Toyota anywhere he wanted. He swept the first two stages and led the most laps but got shuffled to the back of the 12-car breakaway after making his final pit stop.

It felt inevitable that he would make a run. Surely the most dominant era in the recent history of superspeedway racing wouldn’t end this way.

“I’m not going to win from here,” Hamlin said. “I’ve got to get that bottom line, get some energy moving. I tried to shuffle, and it get it going but no one wanted to go anywhere.”

… tick tock tick tock tick tock …

Michael McDowell had been here before.

Since joining Front Row Motorsports in 2018, he had challenged for the Harley J. Earl Trophy every February but continued to come up short. Despite driving for a mid-pack organization, his continued presence at the front of the field all night was no fluke.

But what would it take to get McDowell from fifth to the front?

“I know it’s going to sound crazy, but I always think I’m going to win this race,” McDowell said. “And it doesn’t happen, and you get done with it, and you look at all things you should have done, and I could have won this race.

“Drew (Blickensderfer, crew chief) and I talk about it: If we just keep putting ourselves in that position, in the top five coming to the white flag, eventually it’s going to go how we need it to go.”

… tick tock tick tock tick tock …

Another 10 laps pass and they’re still running in the same order.

1. Joey Logano
2. Kevin Harvick
3. Cole Custer
4. Brad Keselowski
5. Michael McDowell
6. Ross Chastain
7. Austin Dillon
8. Chase Elliott
9. Kyle Busch
10. Ryan Preece
11. Kyle Larson
12. Denny Hamlin

The train comes across an injured No. 1 Chip Ganassi Chevrolet driven by Kurt Busch. He’s running a second off the pace and is four laps down. Logano chose to lap him from the bottom line and the field began to snake around the 2004 champion.

Maybe this would be enough to break the line out of their single-file stupor.

Hamlin has Bubba Wallace with him and they’re trying to make a run at the Ford frontrunners with the Chevrolets, but it’s to no avail.

They quickly formed back into a line.

“Selfishly speaking, I’m wondering ‘what in the world,’ why are we running in a single-file line (late in the race) running 10th, 12th, 8th, 6th, whatever,” Hamlin said. “Are you happy with that finish or are you going to go for it?

“There were no Fords past fifth-place and then there was everyone else, and surprise, everyone else didn’t go for it.”

Another five laps pass and they’re still not going for it.

… tick tock tick tock tick tock …

Unlike Logano, who won this race in 2015, Keselowski had never won the Daytona 500. In a career that spans victories in the Brickyard 400, Southern 500 and Coca-600, the 2012 champion had done it all but hoist the Harley J Earl.

If there was ever a logical choice for the first driver to make a move, it was Keselowski in his 12th attempt in the Great American Race.

“The 2 kept trying to back up, trying to get a run,” Logano said of his teammate. “I was trying to back up to him to keep the runs from being too big.”

The ticking sound was indeed a time bomb and it finally went off with half a lap to go.

“Pandemonium, I guess,” Logano said. “Chaos struck.”

Keselowski fell back to McDowell and the draft propelled them forward. Simultaneously, Logano reacted left and Keselowski drove right into the back of his teammate and both the result was both Team Penske cars sideways in front of the field.

Kyle Busch drilled Keselowski and sent the No. 2 almost towards the catchfence, the collision triggering a huge fireball as Austin Cindric and others piled in.

… tick tick BOOM

“I had a big run down the backstretch and 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.”

Busch heard the metaphorical ticking clock, too.

“It was just a matter of time before it all breaks loose and whatever happens, happens,” Busch said. “I saw a window to the outside and all of a sudden I had (Keselowski) on my hood.”

Emerging from the chaos was McDowell and defending Cup Series champion Chase Elliott side-by-side at the time of crash, the decisive moment of the race, as the caution ends the race if it occurs after the leader takes the white flag.

Suddenly, time slowed to halt, the world waiting on pins and needles for NASCAR to sort through the video evidence that would reveal who was leading at the time green flipped to yellow.

… tick … tock … tick … tock … tick … tock …

It took a full cool down lap for NASCAR to confirm McDowell as the winner — something that must have felt like a lifetime behind the wheel of the No. 34 Ford Mustang.

“I didn’t know at all when the caution came out because it was so chaotic, right? I didn’t know where I was at the time,” McDowell said. “I was fairly confident that I was ahead because I was ahead throughout a majority of the corner. … When I came across the line, I thought to myself, ‘is this possible? I think it’s possible.’

“And then it sunk in, that if it didn’t happen, I was going to be so upset because we were that close. It was a long lap.”

Then time came unglued, and like a record slipping back onto the turntable, race control said the magic words.

“34 to victory lane.”

And for McDowell, it was the culmination of a professional lifetime spent trying to stick, when so much worked against him. He captured the 2004 Star Mazda championship, but used the scholarship money on a Grand-Am opportunity instead.

This was the same time McDowell was working as an instructor at the Bondurant Driving School just to make ends meet while racing over the weekends.

He moved to Stock Cars in 2006, finishing second to Frank Kimmel in the ARCA Racing Series championship that year, earning a Michael Waltrip Racing development contract as a result.

He spent one year at MWR before the team opted to not retain his services.

McDowell would start-and-park race cars, while driving motorhomes across the circuit for Trevor Bayne.

… tick tock tick tock tick tock …

It appeared as if time was starting to run out for McDowell’s chances to make a serious run as a professionally paid race car driver at the highest level.

Speeding through time now, he caught a big break with Leavine Family Racing in 2014 and then another with Front Row Motorsports in 2018, at which point the winless column started to add up.


McDowell says he never had a doubt: Not at Daytona, and not in the Cup Series. He knew he would outlast time and win this race.

“I know it sounds crazy, but no,” McDowell said. “Y’all could ask my wife because she’s more realistic, and she’s just like, ‘Man, I don’t think it’s in the cards.’ For whatever reason, I don’t know, I’ve been like, ‘It’s going to happen. I just know it is.”

He says that if he didn’t feel that way, then what was the point of any of this?

“Even when I was start-and-parking, I was like, ‘Man, one day I’m going to get a shot at it, and I’ll be able to do it’ because of everything that’s happened and all that I put into it. I never lost hope of that.

“And when I come to the racetrack, when we load up and go, I really think every weekend, okay, this is the weekend it’s going to happen. And I know that sounds crazy, but I do, and I have, and I have for a long time.”

It may not be on Sunday night, or early Monday morning, but once the party comes to a conclusion — after the champion’s breakfast and media obligations have passed — McDowell will eventually fall asleep …

… tick tock tick tock tick tock …

… and like it always does, the timer is going to go off for him, too.

But it wasn’t a dream.

Michael McDowell won the 63rd Daytona 500.

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