Michael McDowell scored and upset win in the 2021 Daytona 500 in the wee hours of Monday morning, taking his only lead on the final lap of the 200-lap race when frontrunners and Team Penske teammates Joey Logano and Brad Keselowski crashed racing for the win.
“My plan was to stick to the 2 [Keselowski] car,” McDowell said. ”I knew he would go for a race-winning move, and my plan was to let him make that move and, then, coming off of four, try to get to his outside or inside. I knew I didn’t want to make my move too early, so I was committed to the 2 car’s bumper, and when he made the move, the hole opened up. It’s just unbelievable.”
The win was McDowell’s first-career NASCAR Cup Series victory.
“I just can’t believe it,” McDowell said. “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 [car 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? I just want to say, ‘Hi,’ to my wife back home. Happy Valentine’s Day. I know it’s been a tough week. My kids, I love you guys. I wish they could be here with me to celebrate. Maybe NASCAR will send a plane to bring them down here, but we’re the Daytona 500 champions. Thank you Doug Yates, Ford. We had our Ford partners at the end, and they all crashed, but luckily, I was able to make it through. I’m just so thankful. God is good.”
Chase Elliott finished second, and Austin Dillon was third. Kevin Harvick was fourth.
“Brad just dropped way back and tried to stuff it in there, and then, everybody scattered, just trying to hope that you get the right push or push somebody,” Harvick said. ”It was a really good Busch Light Ford Mustang and just came up a little bit short.”
Two-time defending Daytona 500 winner and three-time, overall, winner of NASCAR’s biggest race, Denny Hamlin, finished fifth after leading a race-high 98 laps.
Several other drivers were collected in the last-lap crash, including Darrell “Bubba” Wallace Jr., Ross Chastain, Ryan Preece, Chase Elliott and Kyle Busch. Preece and Chastain still managed top-10 finishes, Preece in sixth and Chastain in seventh.
Logano took the lead at the conclusion of the final cycle of green-flag pit stops that Ford teams began with 30 laps remaining. Hamlin had dominated the race to that point, but when the small group of Toyota drivers got separated on their final pit stops, Hamlin lost ground when he and his manufacturer teammates returned to the track. Meanwhile, a Ford brigade of Logano, Harvick, Cole Custer, Keselowski and McDowell took positions in the top-five.
“We were too far out front,” Hamlin said. “We got on and off pit road too good. I was just too far ahead of the pack. I figured the Chevys would make a move from two or three to go, because they are not going to win on the last lap from fifth or sixth. I was able to gain some positions. I think I was 12th, and everybody was running single file, so it handcuffed me. I couldn’t really do anything. I hoped once I got to eighth as long as they make a move with two to go, I’m in the energy – in the area where I can make something happen. Dominant car, just a dominant car. Just one of those things that execute too good.”
Harvick ran second to Logano for most of the remainder of the race after final pit stops, but Keselowski took second to challenge his teammate for the win with two laps remaining.
“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. The Discount Tire Ford was not the fastest, but Jeremy Bullins [crew chief] and the whole team did a great job of keeping us in position, and right then, we were in position. 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.”
The race was red-flagged for over five-and-a-half hours because of rain after the completion of 15. When precipitation arrived at the track, the race already was under caution for a 16-car wreck on lap 14 that involved Aric Almorola, pole sitter Alex Bowman, William Byron, Martin Truex Jr., Erik Jones, Kurt Busch, Matt DiBenedetto, Ryan Newman and Ryan Blaney, among others.
“It looks like the #10 [Almirola] kind of got turned sideways, there, and I was the guy that got ran into,” Bowman said. “Bummer, I hate it for Ally. Obviously, we had a really fast Camaro. The Chevrolet’s were working good together; hopefully, a Chevy still ends up in victory lane. Hats off to everybody at Hendrick Motorsports; they built some really fast race cars. Hate that superspeedway racing works out that way sometimes, but that’s just part of the game.”
Harvick, after officially starting eighth but moving up a row at the green flag when William Byron dropped to the back after going to a backup car, was in the lead by the first caution on lap four when Derrike Cope wrecked after contact with Wallace Jr. Harvick continued to lead most of the laps until the red flag.
Hamlin took over, though, when the race resumed. He led most of the remaining laps of the opening stage, taking a stage-one win on lap 65.
Early in the second stage, the Joe Gibbs Racing trio of Hamlin, Kyle Busch and Christopher Bell took command of the top-three positions in the running order, with Bell leading his teammates and everyone else.
That changed when a group of Ford drivers began a cycle of green-flag pit stops on lap 105. Stops jumbled the running order, with Kyle Larson, Elliott and Harvick in the top-three. Hamlin was back up front, though, when Bell spun with a flat tire, bringing out the fifth caution of the race on lap 113.
Hamlin briefly lost the lead to the car he co-owns, the #23 driven by Wallace, on the final lap of stage two, but he retook the lead in time for a second stage win on lap 130. Dillon took the lead on pit road during the caution after the end of stage two by taking only two tires. But when the race restarted, Hamlin moved back into the lead.
Other top-10 finishers included Jamie McMurray in eighth, Corey LaJoie in ninth, and Larson rounded out the top-five.