Daytona 500: Underdog Michael McDowell earns first career win after avoiding wild last-lap wreck


Photo from Jared C. Tilton at Getty Images

Matthew Breault, Assistant Sports Editor

The 63rd annual Daytona 500 had a little bit of everything on Sunday, Feb. 14. For NASCAR fans around the world, they got to witness all sorts of crashes, weather delays and arguably one of the biggest Cinderella stories in the history of the sport.

On lap 14, “The Great American Race” saw its first “big one” as Christopher Bell’s No. 20 Toyota made off-centered contact with Aric Almirola’s No. 10 Ford, triggering a massive 16-car pileup. 

Then, following this melee came the weather delay.

NASCAR fans in Daytona had to wait a near 5 hours and 40 minutes for the heavy rain, lightning storms and golfball-sized hail to go away before the race resumed around 9:00 p.m. ET. 

After the race resumed, it seemingly was the Denny Hamlin show as the No. 11 FedEx Camry dominated the first two stages while leading a race-high 98 of 200 laps until a pit road strategy derailed his attempt at becoming the first driver in NASCAR history to win three-straight Daytona 500’s. Hamlin would go on to finish 5th, continuing his streak of six consecutive top-5 finishes on NASCAR’s two superspeedways.

Just like the majority of Daytona 500 finishes, it all came down to a last-lap pass. Down the backstretch, Penske teammates Joey Logano and Brad Keselowski were in first and second, followed by Front Row Motorsports’ Michael McDowell, Richard Childress Racing’s Austin Dillon and Hendrick Motorsports’ Chase Elliott.

After a big run for Keselowski, he connected with his teammate Logano causing them both to spin out, creating a fiery multi-car wreck heading into turn three on the final lap. NASCAR immediately turned on the caution lights to end the race and ensure the safety of the drivers. When the caution lights came on and the caution flag flew, McDowell was ahead of Elliott by a car-length, giving McDowell not only the race lead but the race win early Monday morning.

With this win, McDowell earned his first-ever NASCAR Cup Series victory in his 14th season and 358th career start. McDowell’s 358 career starts were the second-most in series history by a driver before their first win; behind Michael Waltrip, who had 463 career starts before winning the unforgettable 2001 Daytona 500.

After the 36-year-old Daytona 500 champion climbed out of his damaged No. 34 Love’s Mustang for FRM, he was overcome with emotion. 

“I just can’t believe it,” McDowell said to Fox Sports NASCAR reporter Jamie Little. “I’ve got to thank God. So many years of just grinding it out, hoping for an opportunity like this. I’ve got to thank (team owner) Bob Jenkins for giving me this opportunity. I’m so thankful.”

With this historic victory at 100-1 odds, McDowell became the eighth driver in NASCAR history to earn their first career win during the Daytona 500, despite only leading the final lap.

Photo from Michael McDowell

Click here to see the official Daytona 500 results.