Michael McDowell pushed his way to victory in the Daytona 500 just after midnight on Monday.
On the last lap, the 36-year-old racer capitalized on the misfortunes of the Team Penske Fords then held off Chase Elliott at the line by just .070-seconds.
After 13 seasons and 358-career starts, a shocked and elated McDowell climbed from the No. 34 Front Row Motorsports Ford on the front stretch to celebrate his first NASCAR Cup Series win.
“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 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?
“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 (engine builder), 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.”
McDowell became the eighth Cup driver to score his first win in the Great American Race. His three previous top-five finishes came at either Daytona or Talladega.
“Not everybody makes it to victory lane and for 14 years I didn’t,” McDowell added. “So just to be here now is just so amazing.”
Austin Dillon finished third followed by Kevin Harvick and Denny Hamlin, who led a race-high 98 laps but fell just short of collecting his third-consecutive Daytona 500 win.
“I couldn’t really do anything,” Hamlin said. “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.”
Once again, rain delayed the 500. As fans saluted the late Dale Earnhardt on Lap 3, Derrike Cope slapped the wall in Turn 4 to bring out the first caution. Kevin Harvick, who claimed the lead from polesitter Alex Bowman on the first lap, continued at the point.
With a push from Kyle Busch, Christopher Bell bumped the back of the No. 10 and knocked Aric Almirola’s car into polesitter Alex Bowman triggering a 16-car pileup in Turn 3 on Lap 15.
“It looks like the No. 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.
“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.”
Kurt Busch, Martin Truex Jr., Ryan Newman, William Byron, Ryan Blaney, Matt DiBenedetto, Jamie McMurray, Tyler Reddick, Chris Buescher, David Ragan, Erik Jones, Daniel Suarez, Anthony Alfredo were all involved.
NASCAR initially red-flagged the race for the wreck, then the rain came. After five hours and forty minutes under red, the yellow flag waved. Bowman, Suarez, Almirola, Newman, Blaney and Ragan’s cars were taken to the garage. Alfredo, DiBenedetto and Buescher attempted repairs but retired under NASCAR’s Damaged Vehicle Policy (DVP).
The race returned to green on Lap 30. Four circuits later, Hamlin grabbed the lead. Byron was black-flagged for sheet metal flying off of the No. 24 Chevy. Alas, it was too late for Quinn Houff, who rolled over the debris and collected Chase Briscoe in the process. Houff was finished for the night, but after repairs, Briscoe returned to the field 24th, one lap down.
Hamlin led the final 34 laps of the segment and won the first stage. He and Austin Cindric ran side-by-side as the race returned to green on Lap 72. With a push from Joey Logano, Cindric led his first lap in a Cup car. Bell pushed Hamlin back to the point on Lap 74, then took the lead on the next lap.
The Team Penske Fords pitted with Harvick. Bell and the Toyotas came from the lead on Lap 107, followed by the Chevrolets on Lap 111. Hamlin cycled back to the front but two laps later, Bell cut a left rear tire and made contact with Ricky Stenhouse Jr., who collected Larson. Jamie McMurray, Kaz Grala and Corey LaJoie were also involved in the Lap 113 crash.
Hamlin claimed the lead On Lap 130. Although Wallace challenged his team owner on the penultimate lap of the stage, Hamlin came back to win the second segment. With his 58 circuits at the point over the first two stages, Hamlin passed Bobby Allison (433 laps) to become fifth all-time in Daytona 500 laps led with 434.
Dillon led the field to green for the final stage followed by Hamlin, Harvick, McDowell and Logano with 64 to go. With a push from Harvick, Hamlin rocketed to the lead.
Harvick led the six of the remaining Fords to pit road with 30 laps to go. The nine Chevys came in for service on the next lap, followed by the Toyotas with 28 laps to go. And Hamlin didn’t have help or the time to recover.
Logano cycled out to the lead on Lap 175 followed by Harvick, Custer, Keselowski and McDowell. Wallace, who was running 10th, pitted on Lap 178 with a vibration. He dropped to 17th, one lap down.
The five Fords continued out front with 15 to go. Custer pulled out with 10 laps remaining to leave the line of Logano, Harvick, Keselowski and McDowell with Dillon’s Chevy in fifth.
With two to go, Keselowski dropped back then hooked up with Logano. But as the Team Penske drivers rolled around to the backstretch, McDowell gave Keselowski a push and thrust him into Logano entering Turn 3. The Penske Fords wrecked and opened the door for McDowell. Keselowski ended up in the wall and collected Kyle Busch, Cindric, Custer, Ryan Preece, Wallace and Ross Chastain.
“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.”
Dillon and Elliott challenged McDowell coming out of Turn 4, but the driver of the No. 34 had the momentum on the high line and held on for the win.
“My plan was to stick to the 2 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.”